Allen & Unwin
Sep 2015 RRP $29.99
The tanned, bare legs at the lip of a body of water, skirt hiked up, on the cover of Susan Johnson’s The Landing say one thing, and that is SUMMER FICTION. Get ready, summer is nigh and with it summer reading, i.e., that special genre of book best enjoyed beachside with a floppy hat whilst the kids are busy but well cared for elsewhere.
The Landing commences with a Jane Austen-esque question: if Jonathan—recently single due to his wife leaving him for her, shock, female colleague*—is in possession of a good fortune, must he also be in want of a new wife? Jonathan intends out to find out, knowing full well that life alone is not for him. But he was also blindsided and left utterly confused by his wife Sarah’s departure. The rug has been pulled, and the minutia of Jonathan’s life is now suffused with this question.
The setting of the story is a hamlet known as The Landing, situated a hundred and fifty kilometres north of Brisbane, a ‘slender tip of a finger of God’s earth extending out into a magnificent lake’, where Jonathan has built himself a beach house.
The Landing is an ungentrified refuge, with no fancy coffee shop and peopled with an English villageful of interesting characters. These include wife candidate number one Penny, divorced and frustrated by feelings of artistic unfulfillment; her beautiful daughter Scarlett, twenty one years of age and already mother of two small children, Ajax and Hippolyte, and partner to Paul, a man older than her own father; wife candidate number two Anna, a blow-in from England and onto her fourth divorce; Anna’s father Gordie, ‘pants man, retired‘, as his deceased wife once, calmly, suggested he should print on his business card; and Giselle, a neglected child sitting out her mother’s drug rehabilitation.
We also meet Penny’s mother, Marie, a French schoolteacher émigré who married the man who jumped to his potential death when she first declined to marry him. Through back-story, we see a halting, young Marie arrive in Brisbane, conflicted past in tow, only to blossom into a doyenne of high society. The present day Marie is a quick-witted, force of nature, who having been kicked out of her latest nursing home, decides to move in with her long-suffering daughter.
On the face of it, The Landing looks like it should be a light and easy romp, although that may be the case of this reviewer judging a book by its cover. But whilst Johnson’s graceful, witty prose carries with it many instances of the weightlessness of insight and exultation, it is also heavy with the bagginess of regret and confusion. These are infused into the proliferation of detail inscribed throughout the novel.
For example, Johnson pays beautiful attention to natural features:
….sprinkled throughout are spiny, needle-like grass trees and sweet-nectared yellow banksias, bursting and round as pompoms, and native fungi, brilliant red.
And also attention to characters: Penny’s ex-husband learns clarinet in Noosa, and Jonathan forgets onions and goes to buy them at the store. The cast of characters encounter one another in the store, going for a walk, in each other’s homes, and they talk. Much of the talk is mundane: Penny observes that her dog loves eating vomit. Or grossly ignorant: Anna states that she is ‘not all that interested in Aboriginals’.
At the same time, always there is a grasping for exultation and poetry in the mundane. Jonathan muses:
…he had never asked [his ex-wife]—and never would—if it was Cath who rose like the moon and him who sank.
Similarly, cast-off wife Rosanna, Paul’s ex-wife, swims in the lake:
…among the ospreys, kites and white herons, among fish gently breaking the surface of the water….letting her whole world turn into liquid silver… Rosanna was free. Rosanna refused to hold onto her pain. Rosanna had let everything go because forgiveness is a choice not to suffer.
The birds and fish are offered like a liturgy of this world, concrete things that counter the dazzling moment of release, a passing moment that offers a nugget of meaning in the mundane litany that is life.
The effect of this profusion of detail, of dialogue, things, character quirks, like a river spreading thinly over a plain, is to diffuse the plot; as if the plot itself is a mélange that does not know where it is headed. In short, The Landing is, in fact, like real life and sometimes uncomfortably so. Hunting around, I see that other readers have noted in various reviews that whilst they found some of the characters in The Landing annoying, some people in real life are annoying. It’s clear, of course, where we are headed, because the path is set out by Susan Johnson from the first sentence: is Jonathan in want of a new wife? But things are never this linear, neither in real life nor in The Landing. The message seems to be: we fumble, we fail, we are confused and hurt, but we push on. Jonathan wonders:
…did he want love’s vastness back, with all its capacity for damage? One day he will decide, and his human moment—misjudged or correct—will join all the other moments in the fabric of existence, everything that did not happen and everything that did.
And that’s that.
Amidst this, Marie’s story, as the most cohesive narrative in the book, is offered as somewhat of a textbook case of someone who has found their feet in life:
Marie was the miracle. Marie was the surprise.
The Landing may particularly suit the more mature reader, whom I believe would empathise with Johnson’s particular rendering of themes such as ageing, regret and displacement. For who among us can ever live out the years without also collecting some agedness, regrets and displacement?
* A word of warning for those looking for engagement in the storyline with LGBT identity and heterosexual marriage, as Sarah leaves Jonathan for a woman after many years of marriage. The Landing remains in decidedly heterosexual territory.