SUSAN JOHNSON The Landing. Reviewed by Robyne Young
This novel artfully articulates the search for the perfect self, the perfect emotional and sexual mate, and the perfect life.
In the opening sentence of her new novel, The Landing, Susan Johnson pays homage to one of the greatest writers on love and matrimony, Jane Austen: ‘If a separated man – about to be divorced – is in possession of a good fortune, must he be in want of a new wife?’ However, unlike Austen’s love-seekers, Jonathon Loft, ‘fifty-five years old and almost a free man’, is still clinging to his ‘nominal wife’ who has left him for another woman.
Johnson sets the novel up not with a single woman desiring to make a good marriage, but with a reluctantly single man seeking sanctuary and possible love at The Landing:
The Landing was a slender tip of a finger of God’s earth extending out into a magnificent lake, part of a pleasing system of waterways, made up of beaches, rivers and fresh and shallow saltwater lakes one hundred and fifty kilometres north of Brisbane. With a population of two hundred and twenty souls, it was a small but proud part of that lucky corner of south-east Queensland, the part growing faster than any other place in the country, attracting newcomers as if there were a goldrush or a mining boom.
The locals know it to be ‘a peaceful refuge in the wake of a relentless life’, with ‘slow and erratic internet’ and not even a ‘fashionable coffee shop roasting organic coffee beans exclusively hand-harvested from Honduras Monte Escondido Estate or the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea’.
While Jonathon welcomes the peace and the possibility of a liaison, (there are a number of eligible women in the village), all of the residents he and his ex-wife Sarah have become acquainted with over the many years they had holidayed there, along with some newcomers, have their own tales of life and love to tell.
Penny Collins and her ex-husband Pete are the parents of Scarlett, ‘The Prettiest Girl in The Landing’, whose natural charms have captured Paul Raymond, formerly married to Rosanna. Scarlett and Paul have two sons, Ajax and Hippolyte. Much to Penny’s chagrin, Paul’s ‘abandoned’ wife, Rosanna, ‘… was free. Rosanna refused to hold on to her pain. Rosanna had let everything go because forgiveness is a choice not to suffer.’ Penny also has to contend with her mother, Marie. Although Marie can afford any nursing home she chooses, she ‘did not yet appreciate that the question was no longer which nursing home she liked, but which nursing home liked her’.
Completing the ensemble is the Scottish retired doctor, Gordie Wallace, and his daughter, Anna, who has fled back to The Landing from England after her husband left her; and the shopkeeper and watcher of all activities, Sylv Watson. Then there is Giselle, an abandoned waif, who checks her mother each morning to ensure she is still alive and looks for worlds beyond ‘magic cupboards’, but only ever finds that they are ‘… ordinary places, for clothes, for shoes, old plastic bags, exercise equipment and suitcases’.
For each of her characters Johnson artfully articulates the search for the perfect self, the perfect emotional and sexual mate, and the perfect life. For a number of the characters this perfection is represented (and in the case of Scarlett and Paul, realised to some degree) by the romanticism of all things French. Jonathon recalls …
… a hard cheese he had originally tasted on a mountainside in the French Pyrenees … He had never tasted anything finer – the cheese, the bread, the wine – and it was the first time the air had moved freely in his chest again since Sarah left him.
As a 25-year-old, Penny had made ‘one last, honourable effort to become a full-time artist’, but fell below the standards she had set for herself:
That was the faltering year she was twenty-five and trying to get a French passport, trying to be French and obsessively, neurotically trying to paint perfection and turn herself into an artist.
However, her mother Marie had come to a realisation early in her marriage that rather than abandoning ‘her native place’ and ‘changing addresses’, being French ‘was an advantage’:
Soon, little by little, being French became a sort of confidence trick she could pull, ooh-la-la-ing all over the place, intimidating Australians, who, to her great surprise, immediately bestowed upon her all manner of superiorities: in fashion, food, manners; in something they called ‘good taste’, an altogether impossible elegance which they found indescribably glamorous, full of romance, an unreachable quality that could never be theirs. Who knew it could be so uneventful, slipping off one identity and assuming another, the dark airless room in Passy swept from view, that old box of malevolent tricks locked, so far away?
Johnson presents the reader with a number of views of another character in the novel, Brisbane. Marie sees the 1950s city as ‘… unimaginably awful, an uncivilised shanty town in which she was stranded without hope of return’. Anna’s view of the current Brisbane is ‘an Asian city … A smaller Hong Kong’ while Jonathon, who grew up in the city, notes that Expo ’88 is the ‘official marker of Brisbane’s coming of age’:
‘It’s how Queenslanders date the beginning of modern time, like BC and AD. Expo represents the dividing line between the old Brisbane, the old big-country-town Brisbane, and the new Brisbane, the sophisticated, cosmopolitan city you see before you.’
‘How pleasant to have one big date instead of the press of a million little histories weighing you down,’ she said. ‘Sometimes in London I feel quite squashed by the past. All those people gone before. All those hopes, all those millions of souls hurrying home down the centuries.’
Among those hopes is love, writ large in The Landing. There is love a person would give his or her life for. Love that rescues and gives people a place in a world that is foreign to them. Love for children and grandchildren. Love for a mother unable to release her own love to the adult child; love given with forgiveness and love for a person who seems familiar, yet acts in a manner that is beyond recognition. Johnson explores, often through interior monologues (as Austen also did) the question of what love, true love, is:
[Jonathon] was sick of the unbreachable gap between idealised love and its puny reality. Yet he was moved, impossibly moved, by the mad human striving towards it, by the great stupid streak of hope, the vain, useless tilting.
Still, there is a sense throughout the novel that the tilting is not useless, but necessary. Johnson is in control as she steers her wonderfully realised characters, and the reader, to a place if not of permanent safety, at least to a landing they can survive.
Susan Johnson The Landing Allen & Unwin 2015 PB 288pp $29.99
Robyne Young writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction, blogs at robynewithane.wordpress.com and works as the Communications Officer at Regional Arts NSW.
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