TONI JORDAN Our Tiny, Useless Hearts. Reviewed by Robin Elizabeth
If Toni Jordan were allowed to write a season of Dynasty, the result would be akin to Our Tiny, Useless Hearts.
International bestselling, Indie Award-winning Toni Jordan’s fourth novel is a laugh-out-loud look at relationships, break-ups, breakdowns, and hook-ups. However, under the laughs is a current of despair, yearning, trauma, and growing up. Jordan masterfully weaves ribald humour through fairly intense subject matter to give the reader more to think about than laugh over. Since it was published in January this year the book has been longlisted for the Voss Literary Prize.
Our Tiny, Useless Hearts opens with the protagonist, Janice, remembering her mother smashing every dish and glass in her home after Janice’s older sister, Caroline, got married:
I watched her from the doorway of what had been my room and felt like a small child again, one who would never understand the currents beneath the surface of grown-ups.
Janice and Caroline’s parents had divorced when the children were young. Their mother took Caroline’s marriage as a direct betrayal, but of course did not voice these feelings and instead went about demolishing her fine china. Janice watched on, reliving traumas of the past. What has triggered this memory is the fact that Janice has been called over to Caroline’s home to play peacemaker. The characters’ lives have come full circle as Caroline is now the one facing divorce. Caroline’s husband, Henry, has been having an affair with a teacher at their children’s school. Watching her two young nieces go through the same issues she did causes Janice to reflect upon her childhood and relationships.
One of the most successful aspects of Our Tiny, Useless Hearts is that it gives children of divorce a voice in a non-cheesy way. As Janice witnesses her nieces’ confusion over their father running off with a school teacher, she is able to put grown-up words and feelings around their experience because she too has been there:
I hear Mercedes say, ‘Daddy’s gone away with Miss Roland because he loves her more now and Mummy’s gone too because she’s naughty. Auntie Janice is in charge. She’s in Mummy’s room.’
This dialogue is delivered in such a direct way that it is completely believable as something that would come from the mouth of a child. But these simple statements can often deceive adults into thinking that everything is fine. Juxtaposing these childlike explanations with Janice’s own memories demonstrates that everything is far from okay:
In the long black nights when I was not much older than Paris, when we were still adjusting to our house without my father in it, I took to imagining where he was sleeping, the particular bed and the pillow and the sheets. Was he warm enough? He liked the kind of orange juice with leprechaun on the label. The others were too pulpy, he said, and sweet like musk sticks. Who was going to the supermarket and buying it for him? Who was ironing his shirts, now that Mum wasn’t?
This back and forth between the children’s reactions and Janice’s recollections not only effectively highlights the feelings of children in divorce but also reveals some of the long-term ramifications. Even at 37, Janice still worries and can revert back to the anxious child she was in an instant.
The nods to Shakespearean tropes are a lovely touch. There is a ‘dashing’ man, Craig, who sees himself as more of a feminist than any woman, climbing up a trellis to a balcony to get to his lady love. However, his lady love, ‘naughty’ Caroline, is actually married to someone else and isn’t even at home. Instead Craig stumbles upon long-suffering Janice. This scene is soon followed by Janice’s ex-husband, Alec, arriving and then Craig’s own wife, Lesley, climbing up the trellis. Jordan is clearly showing that real life isn’t like the yearning depicted in the Western canon of literature but more of a farce. An uncomfortable, unexpected, and at times, stomach-turning farce. Anything that can go wrong does. Watching Janice trying to keep order in this increasingly ridiculous world creates much of the humour in the novel.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Alec. Alec is quite frankly the sexiest character you will read about any time soon. He is caring, he is sensitive, and he has amazing forearms. If you’re a fan of Tom in the television series The Blacklist then prepare to have your knickers spontaneously combust when Alec appears. And best of all, he is completely naked by page 75. Given that this is a Toni Jordan novel it is all of course described in the most ludicrous way possible, rather than being erotic … Nevertheless I still found it sexy:
I’ve forgotten nothing about Alec. The former me, when it was part of the former us, knew every inch of him and I don’t need to look now and I shouldn’t but I do anyway.
I’m with you Janice, I shouldn’t be picturing your nude ex-husband either, but I totally am:
His skin is right there, radiating in front of me. I can feel the heat of his blood as it throbs in the veins of his legs and those arms and that stomach and those hidden places that were so him, so Alec, that I could pick them out of a line-up: the stretched skin on the back of his knees, the blue veins in his oddly delicate wrists, the wrinkle behind his ear. He’s thickened a little. His forearms holding the pillow are taut, defined, but his face bears the marks of life. His face has always moved with every thought and every emotion.
In short, I respect Alec for his mind and good nature and would like there to be another book about him – please and thank you.
Our Tiny, Useless Hearts is a book for readers who want to ponder matters of substance, like relationships and the impact of childhood on our adult selves, but also want to laugh while doing so. Because if you don’t laugh you’ll cry. It’s a refreshing look at the complexities of life that any adult who has had a relationship go awry will be able to identify with.
Toni Jordan Our Tiny, Useless Hearts Text Publishing 2017 PB 272pp $22.99
Robin Elizabeth is the author of Confessions of a Mad Mooer: Postnatal Depression Sucks and blogs at Write or Wrong about depression, her love of Australian literature and whatever tickles her fancy bone.
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