Book Review – “The House of Fiction” by Susan Swingler.

Elizabeth Jolley

Elizabeth Jolley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The House of Fiction” by Susan Swingler

Leonard, Susan, and Elizabeth Jolley

MPS (Mrs Pop-Star) is a regular listener to Richard Fidler‘s superb ABC interview program “Conversations” and heard Susan Swingler interviewed recently. Pop-Star happened to be within ear-shot, and became engrossed in her story too. What he heard whet his appetite to read her book. Within a few minutes, he had purchased and down-loaded it from Amazon to his new Paperwhite Kindle, and started to read  her fascinating story.

The story of Susan’s paternal loss.

Susan Swingler tells of her life with her mother Joyce, after her father Leonard Jolley left them in 1950 when she was just  a four-year old. Although so young, she had vivid memories of  her charismatic father and clung to his promise when they parted, to soon be with them again. Over the years of absence, her heart grew fonder, and she refused to believe that he would not honour his promise.

Then Joyce told her she and Leonard were now divorced. Leonard had remarried.

“Did she know his new wife”? Susan asked of her mother?

“No” Joyce evasively replied.

This was part of a deceit that lasted until just before her 21st birthday. It was only when she needed Leonard’s permission to marry that she discovered details of the family secret and cover-up.

After Leonard left, life was a struggle for the independently minded Joyce, who declined to seek help from her devout Exclusive Brethren parents because they had not approved of her having a University education.

In 1955 industrious Joyce was able with a deposit of just 51 pounds, to purchase a 2650 pound 2 bedroom cottage in Exeter. To help pay the mortgage, she took in tenants, and Susan shared her mother’s bedroom. With their own home, Joyce was able retrieve from storage Susan’s toys and other items from when she lived with Leonard in Birmingham.

One afternoon when her mother was out Susan came across a chest, inside which she found out of fashion clothes, and other items, including her mother’s old diary. She thumbed through it, noting an entry for her birth-date on June 3, 1946. And then she came across a letter with the spidery handwriting of her father on the envelope. It was written by Leonard to Joyce at the time of their separation. Somewhat guiltily she read on, and two sentences down she saw her name. She could hardly believe what she then read. For Pop-Star the sentence was perhaps the most poignant moment of the book

“I think it would be best if you told Susan I was dead”.

Devoted “daddy’s girl” Susan, only then accepted the harsh reality, that her father really wanted to end all contact with her. But why? And why was Leonard ready to go to elaborate lengths to hide from his own Exclusive Brethren family the truth of his own infidelity, divorce and remarriage; even migrating to Perth in Western Australia to avoid all contact.

Susan uncovers the family secrets

It is Susan’s incessant quest to understand the events of her birth that keeps the reader so engrossed. Gradually she gains insights into family events and personalities, and eventually  learns more of the triangular relationship between Leonard, his wife Joyce, and his nurse Monica Knight.  When Monica became pregnant, she moved into the Jolley household.  Five weeks after Monica had a baby girl, Joyce gave birth to Susan. It was an impossible situation for family harmony and stability. After four years of indecision, he eventually resolved the situation without explanation to Susan, by leaving them to live with Monica, who changed her name to Elizabeth. Although angry and disillusioned, Susan could not forget her father and remained committed to meeting him.

It was only near the end of his life that she was able to arrange a meeting with him in his Perth home. His now famous wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jolley, carefully supervised the meeting. It ended disappointingly for Susan. There were many questions she planned to ask her frail and hesitant father but when the chance at last was there, her resolution faltered,  and the opportunity passed. Throughout the interview he hardly took his eyes off Elizabeth, and it was only when saying goodbye that he gave her, what to Susan was surprisingly sweet, a smile of farewell. This at least gave her some assurance of a fondness that had always been so distant.

The last chapters of Susan’s book followed another journey to Australia, where she was able to read the biography of Elizabeth Jolley and meet  the author Brian Dibble. She then read the more autobiographical of Elizabeth Jolley’s novels. Finally she was able with permission to view the letters written between Leonard and Elizabeth. They, along with her diaries and other writings, are stored in trust at the Mitchell library in Sydney for 30 years from Elizabeth’s death in 2007.

This is a book that reveals intimate details of relationships that may be too personal to be made public. To the end, Leonard Jolley maintained his reserve, and was unable to welcome the daughter who had loved him so constantly, and craved his attention. In forfeiting his relationship with her, he did not deserve her.

This book has so much of human interest to ponder. The deepest ties are those between parent and child in need of nurturing.

But it is not always appreciated that grandparents may feel deprived  when denied contact with their grand-children following marriage break-downs. They too grieve when their grand-children suffer.

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