Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 6, 2011

Smythe’s Theory of Everything (2011) by Robert Hollingworth, Guest Review by Karenlee Thompson

Robert Hollingworth is a notable artist – and also the author of  short stories, non-fiction and novels.  He published  They called me The Wildman  in 2008 and a memoir, Nature Boy in 2004.  Now Guest Reviewer Karenlee Thompson reviews his latest novel, Smythe’s Theory of Everything.

An Ant has six legs and as such, has the potential to move them in 4,683 different ways…

The spider has eight legs.  It is remarkable to think that those extra two legs mean it has an astounding 545,835 different options for the order in which it could move them…

When I was sixteen, Kitty and I had a spider living behind a poster on our bedroom wall.  That was the year my life began.

So begin the first three paragraphs on page one of Smythe’s Theory of Everything and I was enthralled from the start.  The narrator Jack Smythe is an instantly likeable sixty-two-year-old prematurely ensconced in a nursing home.  He decides to spend his time there chronicling his life and that of his adored sister Kitty, at the same time giving us a rundown of the goings on in the institution, ‘Eden’ (the name of which allows for some delightful metaphor throughout):

F-  Eden!  As though it’s the original Paradise – abundance, beauty and innocence.  This place is as innocent as the glass tube they shove up your backside. (3)

and when a nurse (Collier the Hun) plants a gardenia – the sole bit of greenery on a concrete strip of a courtyard – Smythe christens it The gardenia of Eden.

The indignities of life in a nursing home are not camouflaged: chairs shoved against one another, wheels locked, patients left ‘parked for the duration’ (47); no locks on the doors; intolerant, underpaid staff; a lack of beds and, most importantly, the loss of personal dignity.  But Hollingworth doesn’t allow morbidity to creep in, instead book-ending these unfavourable facts and incidences with great humour.

The ‘muddle of geriatrics’ (81) that makes up Smythe’s fellow inmates is brought to life with humour and a piercing eye. Joe walks slowly, “bent over double like a gerbera left in a dry vase”, seeing nothing but the carpet (33) and Pistol Pete brags about having “more girlfriends than Hugh Heffner” (82)

Smythe’s trusty little blue Oxford dictionary provides an entertaining motif that runs through to the very last page, allowing Hollingworth to entertain us with his play on language in the same way that he uses Smythe’s preoccupation with numbers and scientific theory.  Smythe questions the validity of aspects of the English language and pokes fun at it.  Ruminating on his trusty alarm clock, he wonders why they call it an alarm. ‘It isn’t one; it’s a waker.’ (200) And his reflection on the meaning of desire – toward the end of the novel – is poignant and thought-provoking.

In true Baby-Boomer, Grumpy-old-man speak, Smythe remembers the days when everyone drank cappuccinos, ‘not long blacks or skinny lattes or flat whites with soy’ (77).  Eyeing the tattoos on the granddaughter of an ‘inmate’ he remembers the sixties when, if you wanted to see tattoos, ‘you went to a circus to see a tattooed lady’ (220).  And, on discovering that the aforementioned granddaughter’s name is not spelt Fiona but rather Pheona:

Tell me what’s going on with that?  Tell me what difference it makes in normal conversation.  The only difference is that she must spend her entire life spelling her name for every form, certificate and application that officials insist on filling out. (162)

Smythe’s description of the game of Petanque (a form of boules) as ‘the only sport you can play with a ball in one hand and a glass of chardonnay in the other’ (103) certainly makes it tempting.   His inability to play the game in ‘Eden’ – firstly because his daughter won’t bring his equipment to him, and then because of the lack of a suitable venue – is symbolic of the lack of control he now has over his life.  ‘I want my balls back’ (134) he laments and we know he’s not just talking about his boules.

A personal anecdote:-

At the hairdressers, having deliberately left my current read (Smythe’s Theory of Everything) at home so I can get my mind into something else, I scrabble through my tote for the November edition of Australian Book Review.  I read the letters while the hair dye does its thing and am rather taken aback to discover that the missive I am reading and nodding my agreement with has been submitted by someone with the same name as the author of Smythe’s Theory of Everything.  Could it really be the same Robert Hollingworth?  A visual artist and writer from Fitzroy North…that’s him alright.  How coincidental is that?  I can almost hear the theme song to Doctor Who as I ponder Jack Smythe’s theory that circumvents the notions of time and space.  Then I start thinking about parallel universes and the whole idea of coincidence…

Smythe’s Theory of Everything was launched in October by none other than Peter Garrett AM MP, and I’m sure it will be well-received.  Jack Smythe is portrayed with a sympathetic depth that is quite remarkable and this is a difficult book to put down.

Robert Hollingworth received complimentary reviews for his 2008 historical novel They Called Me the Wildman: the prison diary of Henricke Nelsen (shortlisted for SA Premiers Literature Festival Awards in 2010). See David Messer in the Sydney Morning Herald and Peter Pierce in the Canberra times.

I think Smythe’s Theory of Everything will attract some terrific reviews.

© Karenlee Thompson

Karen is the author of 8 States of Catastrophe and she blogs at Karenlee Thompson.  Thanks Karen, for another great review!

Robert Hollingworth
Title: Smythe’s Theory of Everything
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, 2011.
ISBN: 978-1-921665-52-3
Source: Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers

Hybrid Publishers Online (including eBooks) Smythe’s Theory of Everything
Fishpond: Smythe’s Theory of Everything


  1. Thank you so much for this review, it had me laughing the whole way through it so I imagine the book will be just as good – I will be on the look out for this book. I am pregnant at the moment and have joined a group for people giving birth in the same month as me because I am the first of my friends to have kids. The amount of people who have decided to use different spelling for otherwise ordinary names is a lot larger than I expected so I laughed hardest at that quote.


    • Hi Becky, we used to think that Jayne was pretentious, but now – well, anything goes!


  2. […] was pleased to be given the opportunity, once again, to review for ANZ LitLovers (where this review is cross-posted).   An Ant has six legs and as such, has the potential to move them in 4,683 different […]


  3. Dear Lisa – my publisher forwarded this link. Thanks for posting this review. In case people are wondering about a 62 yo man in a nursing home, this story was inspired by just such a man and I have his little diary. My book is a completely different story, about a boy who runs away with his sister, but how many of these inspiring life stories are in nursing homes?!


    • You’re welcome, Robert!
      How true it is that there are often very special people in nursing homes! When my dear old music teacher went into a home, it was a week or so before we could persuade her to try out the piano. Before long the whole staff, and a good few of the patients were standing around in awe, because she played the Rach 3, the one immortalised in the movie Shine. Valda was a concert pianist and … she hadn’t told anybody.


  4. I have really enjoyed reading – Smythe’s Theory of Everything by Robert Hollingsworth. What sensitive and entertaining writing that gives a wonderful insight into old aged care and its ramifications. I rarely laugh out loud with reading but I certainly did with this book. I can’t wait for my husband to reappear from his travels across The Nullabor and environs to share it with him. I cried at the end!
    I hope it does very well as it deserves the acclaim. I intend to look up his other books.

    Kay Johnston
    Doncaster Vic.


  5. Hi Kay, it’s nice to meet a fellow booklover from Melbourne!


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