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It's 1986 and Caddie Walker goes to an exhibition in her home town of Brisbane - an exhibition dedicated to the 1930s European-American writer Inga Karlson. The star exhibits are The Fragments, the few remaining pages of Inga Karlson's lost second novel. All the copies were destroyed by a fire in the publisher's warehouse; and reputedly the only two people to have read the novel, Inga and her publisher, died in the fire. Caddie, named after the protagonist in Karlson's first novel, is surprised when she quotes a line from one of the fragments that a fellow visitor completes the line. Especially because the completion is not one of the fragments... This is a mystery novel told in two timelines, Caddie's own hunt for the mystery woman from the exhibition and the story of Rachel Lehrer, a young woman who ran away from her grim family farm in America's midwest and into the arms of Inga Karlson. The twin narratives makes the novel a bit slow to take off but when it does, it is really well done. There are parallels between the two story lines: in each, the leading lady is caught between two competing suitors, there are power imbalances brought about by wealth and status. There are stories 0f mundane work (bookselling, typesetting, waitressing) set against the prestige of academia and publishing. And both story lines have a secret at their heart. The ending - which I did not see coming - was one to set my hairs on end. Truly, it was very moving. I have read Toni Jordan's work before and she is a really great storyteller. Easy to read, but complex in the range of ideas that bubble up to - or just under - the surface. I see that her work is positioned as women's fiction, but it is so much more than that. I would encourage anyone - male or female - to read The Fragments and read more of Toni Jordan's back catalogue.
Nine Days is an ambitious book - nine narrators, nine points in time. We follow the story of the Westaway family as they face up to the impending Second World War; we see their friends, neighbours. We see their futures and we discover their pasts. Structurally, the novel is a work of genius, flitting backwards and forwards between the 1930s up to the present day with various stops in between. Subsequent stories reveal details that cast new light on previous stories; the characters reappear at different points of their lives and we see them both as they see themselves and as they are seen by others. On the other hand, as a reading experience it does threaten to become confusing. The reader has to hold a vast array of characters and relationships in the mind at once, remembering what they did and what they are destined to do. At one point, I confess I felt like writing down a chart showing how everyone inter-related. Perhaps it's good that I cared enough to consider this, but it's not so good that I thought it might be necessary. The nine voices all represent different people, but the voices are not always sufficiently distinct. Sometimes, for example, youth might be conveyed through poor spelling or malapropisms, but it doesn't quite make for a distinct character. However, any shortcomings in voice development are overcome by Toni Jordan's remarkable ability to carry a story. She is able to construct genuine moments of pain and heartbreak, joy and hope from the flimsiest of fragments. The end result is really quite overwhelming. There is poignancy as we see how times change - people now have a range of choices that were not available to their forebears in similar situations some years before. This gives the reader some sense of "what if?". Bygone Melbourne also makes a bit of a star turn. We visit Richmond first when it was a stinking slum and then revisit it as it has become a mini Saigon interspersed with wealthy young professionals. We see less change in Hawthorn, always middle class but never quite up there with Toorak. There are trams and boats and trains. Pubs and shops. All these things, and small artefacts, and people and memories making links between different ages. Nine Days is very well worth reading and marks the latest progress of a versatile writer who has avoided being pigeon-holed by her previous works. ****0
Fall Girl is a second novel from Melbourne writer Toni Jordan. It is a novel of intrigue and deception centring around Della Gilmore, a daughter in a family of confidence tricksters. The novel is written in a zingy, pacy style; it's a page turner. Mostly, we follow Della's attempt to scam Toorak multi-millionnaire Daniel Metcalf. But there are also side scams that would not have been out of place on The Real Hustle. There is an element of voyeurism here - seeing how the tricks work and how the family justifies their actions. At one point they even persuade Della that she is offering a service to her "marks", allowing them to feel warm and fuzzy in the mistaken belief that they had given money to help a young girl in distress. We see the workings of the family; the boardroom meetings where each member of the clan has to set out their plans, the input required from others, and seek the endorsement of the group. We see it as a little industry run on professional lines. This makes a neat backdrop to the thrill of the chase as Della adopts the guise of Dr Ella Canfield, seeking to maximise the outturn from her biggest scam to date. This involves persuading Metcalf that she is a prize winning biologist on the hunt for a hitherto undiscovered pack of Tasmanian tigers - believed to have been extinct for 70 years. The joy in this is watching Della and her clan adapt their story to each little twist of the plot, wondering whether each complication that Metcalf introduces is a product of luck, stupidity or shrewdness. The cover artwork for Fall Girl (and I have seen both the UK and Australian covers) clearly targets the book at a young female audience. This is a pity; Fall Girl is not chick lit. There is an element of romance in the plot but no more so than a typical Hollywood film. It's not about romance, it's about honesty and deception. It's about perception; seeing things for what they really are. Fall Girl is clever, it's engaging and entertaining. It's well worth a read. ****0