Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The House of Fiction (author: Susan Swingler)

Elizabeth Jolley is one of those names in literary circles, particularly here in Western Australia. She is right up there with Tim Winton, with Patrick White, with Helen Garner, giants of Australian literature. To not appreciate her work is to be, in the eyes of many, an absolute philistine.

Well, philistine that I am, when I read a newspaper article about a forthcoming book, Susan Swingler’s House of Fiction, which promised to expose Elizabeth Jolley as living, for years and years, a lie, of stealing another woman’s identity, of even stealing another child’s identity for her own daughter, I was intrigued. I wanted the dirt, and I wanted it dished up in great dollops. Forgive me if that makes me sound a tad nasty, but there you have it, and at least I’m being honest.

Of course, the book immediately went into my mental list of “Must buys”, and I had every intention of purchasing a copy. And then – one of life’s lovely little gifts – I was advised by the marvellous Good Reads that I had actually won a copy of the book from the publishers, Fremantle Press Of all the competitions I enter to win a book – and there are many, I assure you – this was without doubt the one that made me most happy.  Not wanting to even wait for the postal service to deliver it, I ventured down to Fremantle Press’s lovely old premises and eagerly collected my prize, brought it home, put the kettle on for a nice cup of tea and settled down with what I was sure was going to be a great read.

You know, what really struck me as soon as I began reading Swingler’s book was that these were real people I was meeting on these pages; this was not an episode of Home and Away or Neighbours, but flesh and blood people with real emotions, real foibles, real insecurities and failings. I found that I wasn’t quite as eager for gossip as I had thought myself to be.

At its base, the book relates how newly married Susan Swingler, an English woman, discovered, quite by accident – as most discoveries do occur – that a giant lie had been perpetuated, and that 12,000 miles away, in Australia, her father and step-mother, Elizabeth Jolley, had carried out, for many years, a deceit of massive proportions. In her own words, Swingler talks of how layer after layer of lies was peeled back, and of her search for answers as to why and how things became as twisted, and indeed sordid, as they did.

At the time when Susan was conceived, little did her mother, Joyce, know that her good friend, Monica Knight, was not only the lover of her husband, Leonard Jolley,  but that she was, in fact, already pregnant with his child. Monica let Joyce believe that the child she was carrying was the child of a terminally ill doctor she knew through her work as a nurse. Not only did Joyce accept this story, she even took Monica into her own home, and in due course the two little girls – Susan Jolley and Sarah Knight – romped together in the yard, loved by their mothers and their father.

Reading the book, and the letters which are contained within it, there can be little doubt of the love that Leonard felt for Monica and for their child, Sarah. It was, I believe, inevitable that he would leave Joyce and start a life with Monica. That is exactly what he did, and they set up home together, playing happy families with their little girl. Ah, if only it ended there all would be fine. Let’s face it, that scenario is played out all over the world on a daily basis, and it is not up to anybody to judge those involved. No, this story takes a strange, and I think incredibly cruel, detour now as Leonard and Monica decide to allow friends and family to believe that the family unit still consists of Leonard, Joyce and Susan. Confusing? Mm, indeed.

Having to leave behind her home, all her toys and the things she loves, Susan is taken by her mother to a new life in a boarding school in the south of England. Her father has promised her that he is off to Scotland to find a new job and a new home for them, and he will come back for her as soon as he is settled. This little girl waits, and waits, and waits, never stops waiting. Through financial deprivation, cut off from any family support, Susan never loses faith that her father loves her and will return for her one day. She even receives parcels from him, but he never comes back.

How could Leonard come back? He and Monica – who has changed her name from Monica Knight to Elizabeth Jolly – are now living in Perth, Western Australia, raising their daughter, Sarah, and in due course other children, Richard and Ruth. Leonard is doing very nicely as a librarian of some note, and Elizabeth’s literary star is in the ascendency. Leonard’s family, still unaware that the woman he shares his life with Down Under is not the woman they know as his wife, send parcels and letters addressed to Joyce, and of course to the girl they think of as their granddaughter and niece, Susan. And there in Australia, Elizabeth receives these gifts and letters, and she responds to them all, thanking those family members for their kindness, and passing herself off in her correspondence as Joyce. She goes so far as to send photographs of Sarah but with Susan’s name written on the back. She sends postcards to the real Susan’s grandfather, signing them as Susan.

This stuff is right out of an Oprah Winfrey show – no, worse than that, it’s like something from Jerry Springer. But his isn’t Oprah or Jerry; this is the story of one woman’s discovery of some really, really bad behaviour on the part of one of the greatest names in Australian literature. Nobody can sit in judgement on others. Nobody can decide on a writer’s literary worth based on their personal lives or beliefs. And you see, that’s where I have a problem with this book. I wonder why it was written, and why it was published.

I can see that the writing of The House of Fiction would be very cathartic for Susan Swingler. I cannot begin to understand the pain and the feelings of abandonment that she must have felt at times once the truth started to emerge – and many of her questions remain unanswered – and I am truly impressed by the lack of bitterness in her writing. Having said that, if Monica Knight had never become Elizabeth Jolley, if she had spent her working life teaching English literature in a high school, or as a CPA toiling over annual reports, would this story have ever been anything more than perhaps a self-published memoir, read by a small group of people? I don’t think so. I think that this book is one which people will buy and read simply because it concerns a literary icon. I’m never sure whether it’s a good idea to know too much about our heroes, be they singers, actors or writers; far safer – and less of a dilemma - to simply judge them only by their work.

So, how is the book? Did I enjoy the book? Well, the book is okay, and that’s about as far as I would go. The writing is not wonderful, but it is not bad either. It is, in my opinion, too long and too self-indulgent in places. Too much time is taken up with a sort of “What Susan did”, “What Susan did next”. It is at times quite repetitive, and at others there are inconsistencies, the sort which jar as you read them, which you know don’t gel with something you read earlier but you just can’t put your finger on exactly what it is that doesn’t quite add up.

I’m really glad that I won this book; I’m really glad that I didn’t actually have to buy it. I have read it, and I’m glad I have read it because it is a book which I wanted to read. But now, this is one of those books which I will gladly pass on to somebody else, and I will happily assure them, “No, don’t bother giving it back to me. Pass it on to someone else, or give it to the op shop”. 

And by the way:

If Susan Swingler's book interests you, and particularly if you enjoy Elizabeth Jolley's writing, you may like to pair this book with Brian Dibble’s biography of Elizabeth Jolley, Doing Life. I haven't read it myself, and I don't imagine I ever will, but I do think it would make a great follow-on to House of Fiction.

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