As Samuel Beckett reminds us, we are all born ‘astride of a grave’, so there is no reason why turning fifty per se should signal impending decrepitude. Western culture has been quick to turn a dollar from women’s anxieties about ageing – you need botox! wrinkle cream! surgery! – so the response of Susan Johnson’s protagonist, Deborah, to her half century does not immediately auger well:
In the months leading up to my fiftieth birthday I observed the first tentative signs of life’s waning … the face I had worn all my adult life began to change into the face of someone else … My body was in the thrilling first flush of its death throes.
Happily, Deborah does not turn to plastic surgery or other ‘cures’, but instead resolves to tell her story. Her object is more complex than merely wishing to recapture lost youth; while noting her own ‘sure withering’ and ‘the violence of my physical ruin’ (surely an overstatement — she is turning fifty, not 150), she also reflects on her mother and grandmother in old age, observing how:
… each became a body without a mind to comprehend it … I understood then that a person estranged from the body’s meaning has slipped the bonds of herself.
And so she begins to record her body’s history:
I am in a fever to outrun myself, to be first to reach the ribbon, before my body forgets what it means to run.
Deborah gathers her treasured moments, her ‘hundred lovers’, and offers up a kaleidoscope of experience that ranges from purely sensual pleasures such as standing naked in the rain or eating a perfect croissant, to actual lovers, male and female.
The novel swings back and forth from past to present but offers a roughly chronological account of Deborah’s life, beginning with her conception the night ‘my father … first slipped inside my mother’, and moving through key childhood memories – of sitting on grass with a bare bottom; of passionately tongue kissing her best friend Nina Payne; of hiding in a cramped dark space with her younger brother.
Her parents’ marriage is an unhappy one. Her father – ‘a suburban s-x god’ – is an unrepentant philanderer. Her self-absorbed mother, famous for her beauty – ‘you’re nothing out of the box,’ she tells the young Deborah, ‘I was exquisite when I was your age’ – is consumed by jealousy and alcohol. One night, her mother:
… ran upstairs and dragged me from my dreaming bed to the top of the stairs so that when my father opened the front door he was confronted by the sight of my mother holding the tip of the knife against my throat.
‘If you take another step I’ll slit her throat,’ she said.
‘Ah … sweetheart,’ my father replied. ‘Listen …’
‘Don’t you sweetheart me,’ said my mother.
With this parental example before her, not surprisingly Deborah’s own romantic path is not smooth. She leaves the gentle embrace of her ‘deflowerer’, the dark-eyed Jonathan Jamieson, believing that she can find ‘a perfect lover she did not yet know but whom she would recognise at once.’
What she finds instead is the sinister ‘shadow lover’, who routinely betrays her as her father did her mother. It takes several years, including a nervous breakdown, before she escapes.
There are many other lovers – though Deborah often has difficulty asserting herself with them. She is unable, for example, to ask the landscape gardener, who prefers just to use his hand to bring her to climax, why he won’t take his trousers off and penetrate her; nor is she able to tell the man who likes to tongue her bottom that she doesn’t want to kiss him afterwards when his mouth is smelling of feces.
There is a married man with whom she has a consuming physical passion – until it burns itself out. And then there are the lovers she meets in France, including an embodiment of male beauty and the older, sophisticated Celestine, who introduces her to the man who becomes her husband.
The novel’s short chapters switch from the biographical to meditations on sensual moments: eating gelato, the pleasure of toes in mud, of standing on the warm stones of a bridge, driving through the countryside listening to jazz. Often the senses record an emotional resonance as well:
I remember a peach I once ate in a garden in France, sitting next to my new husband. The sweetness of the peach seemed to match the sweetness at the heart of the world. At that moment I believed I would never again feel contingent, or estranged from sweetness.
She is a tragic romantic, and until quite late in the piece still dreams of ‘turning into a swan’. The older, reflective Deborah reminds us twice – once at the very beginning of the novel and again later – that ‘Romance between the average couple dies two years, six months and twenty-five days into marriage.’
It’s a caution her younger self would do well to heed, given the storms ahead. It seems at times that for Deborah the pleasures of the senses are more reliable and enduring than the pleasures of the heart.
The narrative voice moves from first to third and even at times to second person. This sounds more confusing than it is, even though there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to it – the third-person sections can be just as intimate and revealing as those told in the first or second – but the shifting perspectives add texture rather than distract.
The language is both lush and frank, and there are some beautiful moments in the writing, as here, after a knee-trembler as a teenager:
She was a daydream, a breath, nothing other than what the body wanted.
In many ways Deborah’s story is offering up a hymn of gratitude for the life she has had and continues to have. If the younger Deborah took her body for granted, the older Deborah can appreciate what she still has. And remind us of the wonder of our bodies simply drawing breath.
Susan Johnson My Hundred Lovers, Allen & Unwin 2012, 272pp $27.99
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