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Posted on 8 Oct 2021 in Fiction, Flashback Friday |

TONI JORDAN The Fragments. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren

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Welcome to Flashback Fridays! This is a new monthly feature where we review books we overlooked when they first appeared. This week, Michelle McLaren discusses Toni Jordan’s 2018 novel of intrigue and literary obsession, The Fragments.

All Has an End was Inga Karlson’s only book. Published to instant acclaim in 1935, it’s considered a classic. It’s the kind of book you might have read in high school, along with To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye and Romeo and Juliet.

Tragically, Karlson died in New York in 1939 aged 28, trapped in a burning warehouse along with every copy of her eagerly anticipated second novel, The Days, the Minutes. Some say Karlson’s death was the work of the Mafia; others that it was a terrible accident. Karlson’s friend, publisher and maybe-lover, Charles Cleborn, who died by Karlson’s side, was the only other person to have read The Days, the Minutes.

Speculation over The Days, the Minutes has been the subject of fierce debate for decades. Of the manuscript itself, only seven burnt pages, referred to as ‘the fragments’, survived the flames. Academics and authors have based entire careers around the fragments, while Karlson fans around the world have clamoured to see the fragments themselves, the few scattered words of a lost masterpiece encased beneath thick glass.

Reading Toni Jordan’s fifth novel, The Fragments, published in 2018, it’s easy to lose yourself and forget that the intoxicating mystery of Inga Karlson’s life and untimely death is a work of fiction. That’s because the way Jordan’s characters feel about Karlson is the way you’ve probably felt about your favourite author too. Maybe you call it fandom, obsession, devotion – or even love. Whatever label you want to attach, The Fragments perfectly captures what it’s like. This is a novel about love – not just literary love, but the connections we make with those around us. It’s about love as a choice we make, and the way we fill our lives.

The Fragments opens in 1986 in Brisbane, as 28-year-old bookshop worker, Caddie, swelters in the heat in a long queue outside the city’s new museum, waiting to see the fragments for the first time.

Of course, Caddie already knows the contents of the fragments. She’s a Karlson fan. She was studying Karlson and planning a career in academia, but left university to look after her father before he died, and never returned. Her father was a Karlson fan – Caddie’s name is Cadence, after the main character in All Has an End. Standing in front of the fragments for the first time in the air-conditioned museum, she’s overwhelmed by awe and grief.

Emerging back into the daylight hours later, Caddie helps Rachel, an elegant elderly woman struggling in the heat. They talk about Karlson and the fragments, forming an immediate bond. As she gets into a taxi, Rachel shares her favourite quote from the fragments – the incomplete sentence from page 200 of The Days, the Minutes that’s Caddie’s favourite too. It’s only after Rachel’s disappeared into the distance that Caddie realises that what she’s just heard isn’t the half-sentence that’s trapped under the glass in the museum. It’s complete. And it’s perfect. Exactly the way Karlson would have written it.

Convinced that Rachel has somehow read The Days, the Minutes, Caddie resolves to find her. To help, she reluctantly gets back in touch with Philip, her lecherous supervisor during her university days. She also contacts Jamie, the owner of a local antiquarian bookshop, a leading Karlson expert, and Philip’s former academic rival.

In alternating chapters, The Fragments jumps between Caddie in 1986 as she searches for a mysterious woman who somehow knows a sentence of a book that was never published, and Rachel herself in 1930s America, as she runs away from her abusive home in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to make a new life for herself in New York – and in a chance encounter, befriends the most famous author in the world, Inga Karlson.

It’s not accurate to say that The Fragments merely bends genre definitions. Jordan takes elements of historical fiction, romance and crime and twists them together with a compelling metafictional flourish. The sections set in balmy, leafy 1980s-era Brisbane are written with Jordan’s distinctive lightness and humour, tinged with a nostalgic tenderness that filled me with longing for a city I’ve never visited.

Compared to Brisbane, New York feels like the centre of everything. The sections where Jordan focuses on Rachel are darker, and more serious in tone. After all, we know from the very beginning of the novel how Inga’s story will end.

When Rachel leaves for New York, it’s with a suitcase of clothes, food, and the only three books she owns – including All Has an End.

In Caddie’s busy Brisbane bookstore, she pretends not to notice as a punk girl slips a copy of Burroughs’ The Wild Boys into her bag.

Visiting Jamie’s antiquarian bookstore for the first time, Caddie is surprised to find a crowd of middle-aged men gathered around books locked in glass cabinets. At first, Caddie mocks Jamie and his expensive books, trapped there like dead butterflies, but then he opens a cabinet and gently places a copy of Don Quixote into her hands:

The weight of it surprises her. ‘Don’t I need gloves?’

‘You can’t feel it through gloves,’ he says. ‘This was printed in 1742. It has engraved plates, see here…’ He opens it with only the tips of his fingers to show her. ‘This isn’t just a story. This is … a way to understand the world, passed down from person to person, and changing each one on the way. It’s the smell, the touch. Books are art that talks to us.’

It takes Caddie a moment to make the connection. The rich people in Jamie’s shop love books in the same way she does. The punk girl in Caddie’s bookstore and the well-dressed collectors in Jamie’s are experiencing the same obsession. The value we place on books – sometimes the literal price tag – is a seam that runs the whole way through The Fragments.

Jordan also draws attention to the stories we tell ourselves about authors. Both Caddie and Rachel are well-versed in the myth of Inga Karlson – the child of illiterate farmers who grew up in a small village in the mountains of Austria, where the residents recognised her obvious talent and pooled what little money they had to send her to school. Caddie explores an entire exhibition about Karlson’s life at the beginning of the novel, even though she already knows every detail that’s on display – the famous letter, the famous necklace, the famous typewriter with the worn-out keys. The museum staff wear red t-shirts with just the word Inga. There are tote bags in the gift shop.

The death of the author was the birth of a brand, and that’s what Inga Karlson has become; her black-and-white, floor-to-ceiling image looks down at Caddie as she enters the exhibition. ‘She was beautiful,’ reflects Caddie a little later in the novel, ‘and that helped.’

It’s through Rachel that we eventually meet the reclusive, enigmatic Karlson, and we discover a side to the iconic Inga that history has forgotten. Of all the stories told about Inga, the most important one remains untold – and it’s not necessarily the one scattered across the seven pieces of charred paper at the centre of the exhibition. 

The Fragments is utterly delightful. If you’ve ever slept with a book under your pillow for reasons you can’t quite explain, or read the same book every year, or know your favourite author’s birthday but can’t remember your mother in law’s, you’re not alone. For anyone who’s ever had a literary obsession, The Fragments will feel like it was written just for you.

Toni Jordan The Fragments Text Publishing 2018 PB 320pp $22.99

Michelle McLaren writes about books and is studying to work in libraries. She lives in the northern suburbs of Melbourne with her partner, two cats and too many books.

You can buy The Fragments from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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