Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 11, 2019

The Fragments, by Toni Jordan

Toni Jordan is a versatile writer, equally adept at romcoms, farce, historical fiction and now a literary mystery-thriller.  She is also equally adept at witty repartee, lyrical descriptions of Brisbane in all its moods, and the compelling cliff-hanger.  But it’s not like The Da Vinci Code where the reader doesn’t really care where the cliff-hanger leads because the characters are so wooden.  Jordan has always been good at creating compelling characters and in The Fragments she shows that she can also portray the bone-crunching realism of domestic violence.  So much so, that when the alternating chapters of her new novel The Fragments leave the reader on a cliff-edge, wondering if a character in America is to survive the latest brutality, violence hangs like a dark cloud over the next chapter, set in the sunny Brisbane of the 1980s though it may be.

Geordie Williamson in his (paywalled) review at The Australian suggests that The Fragments is like a locket, with two images separate but clasped together, and the reader knows that this is true from the beginning.  From the moment that, in 1980s Brisbane, Caddie—awestruck by the sell-out exhibition about the iconic author Inga Karlson—meets a mysterious woman called Rachel who quotes a tantalising snippet from Karlson’s lost book which has spawned decades of scholarship, it is obvious that this Rachel is the key to Caddie’s obsession with finding out who else might have read the lost manuscript.  Caddie’s quest, intersecting with her own quest for identity and a satisfactory love life, alternates with Rachel’s hard-scrabble childhood half a century ago in America and her flight from an abusive father.

Along the way Jordan pokes fun at literary pretensions, scurrilous academics who appropriate the ideas of others, and the commodification of books especially antiquarian books which never get read by their well-heeled owners.  1980s Brisbane is well-realised, though I did wonder if a sly reference to ‘Jana’ would mean much to anyone not around when Jana Wendt was a prominent journalist on one of the commercial networks.  I don’t like to play interstate rivalry games but Brisbane had the reputation of a cultural desert during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years, so the mere idea of there being any funding for a literary blockbuster exhibition in 1980s Brisbane is quite remarkable.  There are other elements to raise a wry eyebrow, not the least of which is the stilted too-correct English of the Austrian émigré Inga Karlson in a café, compared to her later easy use of Americanisms like I’m full up to here; those beauties; I guess; and her angry response to Rachel’s gentle reassurances on p 272:

Inga’s nostrils flare.  She unfolds her legs and one knee strikes a table leg, making everything rattle.  ‘And you know that for certain, do you?  All hail, Rachel, the psychic waitress, teller of fortunes, seer of mysteries.  What do you know about it?  Honestly you speak such rubbish when you choose.’

That Inga could well be the author of an iconic novel.  This Inga would need a great deal of editing:

The girl opens her mouth.  ‘I do beg your pardon, Madam?’ Her accent is European, her voice is low and guttural.
‘A foreigner,’ says Bridget, in her brogue. She and Maureen are standing behind Rachel, eyes agog.  ‘I shouda known.’
‘Don’t you madam me and all,’ says Mrs O’LKoughlin. ‘There’s a cell waiting for the likes of you.’
‘Forgive my English,’ the girl says.  ‘But to what do you refer?’

Mrs O’Loughlin is referring to shoplifting a box of cherries…

‘My mind, ‘the girl says, and her voice softens now to become crystal-thin and lace-edged.  ‘It wanders.  I cannot keep it fixed to its work. I can only offer a thousand apologies.’ (p.172.)

[…]

‘You are too kind,’ she says to the room, and she gives a small, stiff bow.  ‘I will never forget.’ And to Mrs O’Loughlin, ‘Again, I can only apologise for my oversight.  But I think now I have interrupted.’ (p.174)

If Inga is faking shy foreignness and halting English to evade being charged, Rachel doesn’t notice it when a few pages later Inga’s exasperation flares in confident, idiomatically correct English.  It’s Rachel’s perspective that the reader shares, and Rachel doesn’t comment on this remarkable transition at all, though she was taken in with pity for the pathetic émigré and had risked her job to protect her:

‘Honestly, you should be under glass. No I’m not ready for a quack just yet. The zoo?  There’s a tiglon or maybe a liger or something.  Half of one thing, half of another, poor pet*.  Or the Museum of Modern Art.  We could catch something at the Roxy or, I don’t know, have you been to the Argosy?  We could browse the maps.  Or shopping.  I could take you shopping for a hat.’ (p.184)

It’s a small issue, but along with the not-quite-convincing coincidences and the ease with which one can suss out the twist in the plot too soon, it’s not one which will detract from enjoying the novel.

*Hybrid offspring of parents in the same genus but of different species.  Like the hybrid nature of this book!

The Fragments is also reviewed at The Saturday Paper, the SMH, and at Kill Your Darlings.

Update 31/1/19 Thanks to Jill who queried me below, I re-borrowed the book from the library and checked it: I had transposed Sarah for Rachel throughout this review.  (Let’s call it a #SeniorsMoment!) My apologies for any confusion I’ve caused.

Author: Toni Jordan
Title: The Fragments
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018, 308 pages
ISBN: 9781925773132
Source: Kingston Library

 


Responses

  1. I should try to read this. I have enjoyed a few of her novels, and am impressed as you say in your opening with the diverse forms/genres she seems to be able to turn her hand to. She’s such a lively writer.

    (BTW A little typo – it’s “tigon” – as in tiger plus lion – not “tiglon” I believe. It stuck out because the local zoo had tigons or ligers – I can’t remember which – a few years ago. Maybe it does still. We went and saw whatever it was! Haha, made an impression didn’t it!)

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    • Yes, lively, that is the perfect word to describe her oeuvre. (Which is getting quite substantial now).

      I noticed that from my Google search that there were two spellings for tigon/tiglon but tiglon is how it’s spelt in the text. I picked up on it because I’d heard of the quagga, thanks to Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrae. I must admit that I can’t quite see the point of it in that paragraph except to mystify most readers…

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      • Ah apologies Lisa… Tiglon doesn’t really make sense so I assumed typo. Thanks for the clarification.Not having read the book I can’t explain it but it’s not obvious in the context of what follows.

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  2. I’m not going to look this up, but Joh was hoping to retire on 8.8.88 and I think he got booted out a year earlier. Wasn’t there an expo in 88 and a rebuilding of South Brisbane intended to lift Brisbane out of the 1950s.

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  3. This is set, I think before the expo. There’s no mention of it, and you’d expect that it would be because it was such a significant event in the cultural life of the city.

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  4. Remind me; who’s Sarah? Did I miss someone?

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    • Hi Jill, The Fragments is a few books ago for me now, but as I remember it, Sarah is the old lady who quotes the fragment of the lost book that sets Caddie off on her quest. It’s easy to miss: Caddie only hears it when the taxi comes for her outside the gallery, and the driver calls out, ‘taxi for Sarah’ and the old lady gets into it.

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      • Oooh. Yes, I’d missed that. I thought she’d become Rachael but maybe only her qualities. You did well to pick up on that! Thanks. Jill

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        • You’re welcome! (I did read it twice, and I’d missed it the first time too and it puzzled me as to how Caddie knew her name).

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