Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 22, 2023

Aphrodite’s Breath (2023), by Susan Johnson

I was having time off from reading memoirs… but when Susan Johnson — one of my favourite authors —  writes one, well that’s different and I can break my own rules as much as I please.

I had read and admired The Broken Book (2005, see Kim’s review at Reading Matters) when it was longlisted for the Miles Franklin, the IMPAC Dublin Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Queensland Premier’s Prize for fiction, the Nita B Kibble Award, the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ALS) Gold Medal Award and the CAL Waverley Library Award for Literature… but I fell in love with Susan Johnson’s writing with Life in Seven Mistakes (2008, see my review).  That sly black comedy was so brave and honest and true, I almost wept except when I was laughing. I’ve read everything she’s ever published since, and I think I’ve got her entire backlist on the TBR but Life in Seven Mistakes remains my favourite.

Susan is one of those rare writers who can mine aspects of her family life without making me cringe with embarrassment or pity.  She does it again in this memoir, Aphrodite’s Breath, where she recounts her ‘Greek Island adventure’ with her 85-year-old widowed mother.  With breathtaking chutzpah she jettisons her secure job in journalism and sets off for a year on Kythera, sharing the exorbitant cost of travel insurance with her brother in case her mother needs to be airlifted back to Australia for health care.  The trip was financed on a shoestring with a publisher’s advance, to finish the book that turned out to be From Where I Fell  (2021) (see my review) and to write the memoir that turned out to be this book, Aphrodite’s Breath. 

I should note here that my school holiday sojourns to Burleigh Waters to take my 85-year-old housebound mother for a jaunt to Bunnings or Big W were the only (not-even-remotely-similar) mother-daughter expeditions I’ve ever organised…

But although Susan’s mother and mine shared a forthright capacity to (a-hem) ‘know her own mind’, Barbara Johnson  is an active, spry 85-year-old with all her health conditions well under control. (See her photo here.) In her brief Epilogue at the back of the book, Barbara writes that Kythera will stay in her heart as a year well spent but the early chapters of the memoir tell a different story. Barbara never embraced Kythera as Susan did, and there was constant friction between them, even though Susan suppressed her feelings out of longstanding habit.

The reader soon realises that although these two share a strong bond, and are protective and loyal to one another, they have nothing in common.  Barbara enjoyed the stability of home and home-making  while also accompanying her husband on corporate travel  trips, while Susan was a risk-taker determined to fulfil her creative potential, preferring freelance work and the adventure of living an expat life.

So there were times when the relationship was hazardous.  Susan interrogates her own behaviour each time, concluding poignantly that…

I believe that in some families there are mothers and daughters who sit down together and verbalise their feelings, but I have also heard it is possible to reach the peak of Mount Everest with the right training. (p.129)

Barbara complained.  A lot.  Often with good reason, but it must have been wearying.  It is not until much later in the book that it dawns on Susan that her mother might be homesick, and while she obsesses over the tragedy of a 19th century Kytheran uprooted to Dublin where she could not speak the language, she fails to comprehend that her own mother might be lonely because she doesn’t speak Greek.

For a person of normal intelligence, I can be breathtakingly stupid.  I am ashamed to say it never occurred to me that mother might be homesick. Why was I writing romantic tosh about Rosa Kasimati when my own mother was in the next room, probably missing home too? (p.164-5)

But the ‘Almond House’ on Kythera also had limitations which were hard to live with.  For a start, contrary to expectations, it was cold, and the house they’d rented lacked adequate heating.  Susan makes comedy out of its shortcomings but it lacked even the most rudimentary creature comforts such as reliable electricity and modern plumbing. But worse than that was the problem of language.  Susan’s naïve fantasy of getting by with some rudimentary phrases and Google Translate took me by surprise.  There are Greek expressions here and there throughout the book so I just assumed that she spoke Greek, but no. Imagine!

So, imagine Susan — stranded when the internet connection to Google Translate was lost — unable even to deal with conversations with the locals, much less the bank, the local bureaucracy or the fellow ripping her off over the purchase of a car!

I sat there, my tongue dumb in my mouth. I understood, in its entirety, the meaning of Heidegger’s idea that language is ‘the house of being’.  I hardly knew anything else about Heidegger (in high school I had barely passed Logic, a precursor to more advanced studies of philosophy which I definitely did not attempt at university), I understood that language was a representation of myself in the world, my calling card, my barter, my door.  I recognised that I was locked out.(p.55)

The next chapter is called ‘Speechless in Gaza’, with an epigraph from Joseph Brodsky: ‘The condition we call exile is, first of all, a linguistic event.’

When I phoned the local Greek bank, a hesitant English speaker asked me to speak more slowly please.  It was exactly what I asked when anyone spoke to me in Greek: I needed each word to stand alone, shipwrecked in a little pool of air, adrift from the rest of the fleet.’ (p.57)

And yet, Susan settles into island life, disconcerted at first by how different it was in the 21st century with access to ABC News 24 and family chat through the Internet…

Gone were the days of 1978, when Greece was a distant as the moon—so far away that my parents did not hear from me for months at a time and vice versa—when the only news came in a flimsy blue aerogram delivered via poste restante, the old British colonial system of addressing letters to post offices throughout the world until they were picked up by their intended recipient. (p.67)

Only to find as time went by that she had so forgotten her old life in Australia, that the world of consumption, of shopping centres and purchases seemed remote and irrelevant.  That when her mother returns early to Australia, Barbara doesn’t just sound physically distant but as if she was in some place I could no longer picture.  

I couldn’t recall the noise of shopping centres or the feel of being caught in a traffic jam.  When she spoke of her life—which bathroom tile she might choose, her difficulties with builders—it was like news in a radio report on events in an unfamiliar country. (p.303)

Hot Reads stand at Bayside Library featuring Aphrodite's Breath

The romance and adventure of Susan’s sojourn captivated me and I was wholly unprepared for the concluding chapters back in Australia.  Now I understand why this book has already gone into a second printing and why it’s one of the ‘Hot Reads’ at Bayside Library.

Aphrodite’s Breath was also reviewed at Reading Matters and at The Conversation.

PS: Transparency update: I forgot to say, Susan thanks me at in her Acknowledgements, but I’m sure I don’t know what for, except that I’m a keen reader of her work.  Which means I owe thanks to her, not the other way round!

Author: Susan Johnson
Title: Aphrodite’s Breath
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2023
Cover design by Louisa Maggio Design
ISBN: 9781760876562, pbk., 350 pages including Acknowledgments and a Bibliography
Source: Bayside Library


  1. What a great review, Lisa. Thanks for linking to mine. I didn’t mention the language barrier, but you are so right. It’s just so isolating not being able to do basic things without the words to help you do so. Interesting, the book I have just finished (The Amusements) has a link to Susan’s book: it was set in Tramore, in Co. Waterford, Ireland, which has a Japanese garden dedicated to Lafcadio Hearn.


    • I had much more than passable Indonesian when I was there for seven weeks finishing off my qualification, but I still found it hard, and lonely. Telephone calls were a nightmare because there are no facial expressions or gestures to help you and I was always exhausted by the end of the day, just from the strain of all my communications being in a language that (I soon realised) I wasn’t fluent in.
      But being in at the deep end is the best way to learn another language. I was fluent at the end of the immersion course.
      I think it would have been harder for Susan to soak it in because she was always speaking English with her mother, and (as she says) because she’s thinking and writing in English because that’s how she writes her books.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have heard a lot about this book so think I will get it. I love mother daughter stories though my own mother was a serious alcoholic, I tried hard not to go to many places with her as she was so volatile. Never knew what she’d do in public. I got used to it but people around us never did, haha. I might pick this up in a Sydney bookstore I’m visiting this afternoon. Kinokuniya😃🦋


    • That must have been very difficult. My mother was (a-hem) unpredictable too, but in a different way entirely.
      I looked up Kinokuniya, it looks like Paradise!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love it. Lots of Japanese stationery and many, many books. Mothers!!! You gotta have them. 🙄


        • Indeed.
          Tho’ I dread the day The Offspring writes a memoir about me…
          (I’ll haunt him if he does!)

          Liked by 1 person

          • That made me laugh. I’m sure you’re safe.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Love Kinokuniya but it is SO dangerous, as its range is so great.

              I would like to read this book, particularly having enjoyed some of those Aussie-in-Greece stories (novels and memoirs) that came out around the 1980s. And of course with the added interest of being a mouther-daughter story by Susan Johnson. Hard to imagine it wouldn’t be good.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Yes, I think you’d enjoy it!


              • I went to Kinokuniya and bought Aphrodite’s Breath. Looking forward to it. Half way through Limberlost now. Enjoying it.

                Liked by 1 person

                • That’s great to hear!


      • Oh, there is a Kinokuniya in Dubai that I used to make my brother-in-law drive me to when I visited him and my sister in Abu-Dhabi. (They lived there for 6+ years). The shop was amazing and so well arranged and curated. Would love to see the Sydney one.


        • As long as it’s not like Borders, aiming to kill off the local bookstores.


          • It’s a Japanese chain, with worldwide shops. The Sydney one is over 20 years old (though I think originally somewhere else than its current location which I think has been since the early 2000s). Sydney’s big city-located Dymocks still exists within short walking distance of it, so they seems to co-exist successfully, but I don’t know about smaller bookshops in the Sydney CBD.


            • That’s always the worry. The big bookshops and chains (like Readings) can see off a threat like that, but the little ones fall by the wayside.


              • Abbey’s independent bookshop is on the other side of the QVB from Kinokuniya. They have been there since 1968. They have a great classics section and focus on language books as well. The next closest bookshops would be ours in Balmain, Better Read Than Dead in Newtown, Potts Point Bookshop and Gleebooks in, well, Glebe. So lots of Indies still doing well :-)


                • Good, I am glad to hear it!
                  (Especially about yours.)

                  Liked by 1 person

  3. great endorsement – so I’ve just ordered ‘Life in seven mistakes’ – what a title!! great review as always Lisa


    • Thanks Sara! I hope you love it like I do:)


  4. I’m hoping Mum & I will manage a trip round the Scottish islands for her 80th next year, if she’s up to it (it’s her idea, she really wants to do it). Maybe we should both read this first!


  5. A couple of years before my Mum died I managed to take her to the Southern Highlands where we met up with a mutual friend from Sydney for two-nights-three-days of girl-time. It was absolutely wonderful. I tried to do it again but we didn’t quite manage it which is a sadness for me.


  6. Hmmm not sure this is something I would ever do with my mum, but I do enjoy reading about others who can.

    Liked by 1 person

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