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|