Saturday, September 8, 2012

Stephanie Dowrick reads Swingler's The House of Fiction

Elizabeth Jolley was - perhaps still is - a widely admired English-born Australian writer. Her books were praised, prized and read. Her arch, eccentric manner was also praised, as was her indisputably committed teaching and mentoring of many younger writers. I met her only once, in late 1980s Fremantle, Western Australia, when she told me in her charming, confiding way that she needed to tidy her house before she could begin her day's writing. Things needed to be in order on the outside, she emphasized. She also added that she assumed as a much younger woman, and a feminist, I would be far less affected by the "call" of domestic scrupulousness.

Elizabeth Jolley
I've been remembering that brief encounter with particular poignancy as I have been reading Susan Swingler's The House of Fiction. In this completely fascinating yet admirably calm book, Swingler makes it clear how little was in fact "tidy" in the house of Jolley. The book is, in many way, a shocking one, blasting a reader's assumptions about loyalty and honesty, about how superficially we tend to "read" a writer's public persona and life, and certainly about an esteemed fiction writer's conscious manipulation of the truth  and what the long-reaching consequences of that may be.

Susan Swingler is an acute, highly intelligent writer. It's remarkable that this is only her first book because she handles this complex material with a deceptive ease. This gift to her readers (you truly can't stop reading) can only have emerged from a deep, perhaps innate commitment to fairness, despite the unfairness with which she and her mother were treated.

Swingler's father was Leonard Jolley, Elizabeth Jolley's husband. Swingler's mother (Joyce) was the woman Leonard left for Elizabeth, but what makes this a far from usual story is that Leonard and Elizabeth had a daughter at almost exactly the same time as Joyce gave birth to Susan. Joyce was unaware that Elizabeth's child was fathered by Leonard, or so Swingler asserts. Because by then Elizabeth had already begun what would become an increasing elaborate fantasy about who belonged to whom, and where, why and how.

The story unfolds, as I describe in our video review, with all the surprises of the best kind of thriller writing. People appear - and are "disappeared" - in a narrative that Elizabeth and Leonard constructed from their home in Perth, Western Australia, and seem to have maintained with a most curious combination of self-deception and entitlement to do what suited them best, regardless of the consequences for Joyce, Susan, and Leonard's extended family who were also entirely ignorant of Leonard's new life, new family, and of the "real" Susan's fatherless existence.

"Why did you lie?" asks Swingler at one point in the book (aware, of course, that the entire book is an attempt to answer that question). "Don't you realise you were denying me my identity, denying me my family? And who began all this? was it you, Leonard?  Or you, Elizabeth?"

The part that Joyce played in this drama is also fascinating. It's understandable that Susan Swingler is particularly kind to her mother, as well as fair. Yet the extent to which Joyce colluded with, even allowed Leonard's self-serving behaviour, even at the cost to herself and her daughter, remains a mystery. It it also a mystery why Leonard was so attractive to these two women, at the very least. He emerges as self-centered, willfully passive and entirely unlikeable, at least for me.  His utter lack of effort on behalf of anyone but himself is painfully demonstrated in a single line, where Susan is reporting on meeting this long-gone father, after a lifetime of absence: "Leonard looked at me with those sad eyes but said very little."

People's true feelings are generally read through their actions, through the choices they make and sustain, and through what they are prepared to demand of others. This is made exceptionally clear in this book. It's far more engrossing than most novels will ever be. I admired it. And was captivated from start to finish.  

Susan Swingler, author of House of Fiction

Susan Swingler's The House of Fiction is published by Fremantle Press (2012). You can listen to Susan talking about her book with ABC's Richard Fidler via this link.  You can buy this book and support our Book Club through our affiliate bookstore links (above right!).  We welcome your comments, opinions, conversation, engagement!


  1. On the eve of taking myself down south on a solo retreat to emerse myself in reading, writing, walks and good food I thought I had prepared all my reading matter. Apparenty not. Ah wel,l what's another book, especially when it may well end up being the ony book I read over the next four days?

  2. A very interesting discussion on Swingler's memoir/autobiography. In the early eighties i worked at UWA library in the dungeonous Special Collections which was opposite to the book lift (used to haul trolleys of books only through the levels of the building). i mentioned to my senior colleague that there was a man using a key to access it , she became agitated and said it was Mr Jolley the retired Librarian and to steer clear of him if at all possible and that he had a lifetime access to the collections and facility. It seems he ran a tight ship. So it didn't surprise me when Swingler's book was published and her expose of her father. All really sad really. i think it was all about the context of that time, as one questions whether the Jolleys would have been able to suppress or reinvent themselves so completely with the invasions of social media today. i am happy that you have spoken of the psychological aspects of the book rather than the gossipy judgements of exposed social figures. thank you

  3. One of the most unexpected and intriguing NON fictions I have read. Thank you so much for recommending - I will keep a close eye on everything else you offer on this blog. Jane Griffin

    1. Thank you so much! And don't forget to post links on your own FB page or any other social media you use. We have such good writers well as good books to suggest. I love Jane Goodall's new piece on The Hare!

    2. I have just finished reading "The House of Fiction" and I feel angry that L and E Jolley sidestepped any possible direct face to face discussion of their behaviour leading to Joyce and Susan unwittingly being cast in fictional Australian lives. How frustrating for Susan when the opportunity to confront them about their behaviour fades away in the oh so solictious and graciously set up domestic E and L Jolley household.
      Susan, just like Joyce, fell for the sad, infantile eyes of Leo and walked away and left them without censure.Elizabeth reminds me of a miner bird species, not native to Australia,who often builds nests on top of already existing nests (after thwarting the original builders return), suffocating the original babies.
      This book resonates well with the books of Susan Boyt.