Dorothy Johnston, The house at number 10 (Review)

Johnston, House at Number 10 bookcover

Courtesy: Wakefield Press

Dorothy Johnston‘s The house at number 10 has one of the cheekiest opening sentences I’ve read for a long time … but I’m not going to tell you what it is. If you are interested you’ll have to find out for yourselves – and tell me if you agree.

I decided to read this novel for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’d known of Dorothy Johnston since the 1980s but have only read some short stories (specifically, those in the recent Canberra-focused anthologies, The invisible thread and Meanjin’s Canberra Issue.) Secondly, I chose this particular novel because it is set in Canberra and this Centenary year I’m focusing a little, though not exclusively, on books set in Canberra or by Canberra writers.

Dorothy Johnston was a founding member of the Seven Writers, a group of women writers in Canberra who met for many years to share and critique each other’s writing. They have become the stuff of legend, at least to Canberra readers. Johnston has written several novels including four crime novels set in Canberra. She has also been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award – twice. But The house at number 10 is not one of her crime novels, nor one of the shortlisted novels. It is, though, a good read … and it’s time I got to it!

The novel is set in the early 1990s, on the cusp of the legalisation of the sex industry in Canberra. Its protagonist, late-twenties-something Sophie, has been left by her husband, Andrew, not for another women but for “a floating, open-ended freedom”, for “a raft of girls”. They are sharing the care of their four-year-old, rather self-possessed daughter, Tamsin, and Sophie, now living in the garden flat at the back of the old widow Mrs B’s home, needs to support herself. So she applies for a job in a small, newly established and rather shabby brothel in the suburb of Kingston, at 10 Andover Street. Hence the novel’s title. The novel explores Sophie’s various relationships – with Elise and Kirsten who work in the brothel, with Marshall the brothel owner and Elise’s partner, with her landlady, with her old friend (and architect) Ann, with a couple of her clients, and of course with her estranged husband and her daughter.

There is a little bit of the “oh what tangled webs we weave” about this novel as Sophie strives to keep her two lives separate – but Johnston is not so much interested in mysteries and intrigues here as in how we navigate complicated relationships and cope with betrayal. It’s a surprising set-up but it works, because she keeps the story grounded in the relationships and not in its potential for salaciousness.

And the relationships are what keep you reading, as Johnston slowly draws the various characters into Sophie’s new life. Ann designs a renovation for the brothel, Mrs B takes over fixing up its garden. Characters look out for each other – Kirsten deflects Marshall who is keen to try out this new “girl”, while Sophie looks out for Kirsten through a long illness; Ann and Mrs B accept Sophie’s choice, supporting her while also offering advice. Not all is rosy though. Elise is suspicious and prickly, and Ann has a little fling with Andrew, albeit with Sophie’s not-overly-happy knowledge.

Underpinning all this is a tension stemming from Sophie’s grief and anger at her abandonment. She doesn’t rant, and she holds it together in front of her daughter, but her feelings are made clear when she meets her first client:

She handed him a condom and he rolled it expertly. Now, she thought, now, as grief at her failed marriage made barriers transparent, each one constructed of material so thin she could burst through it at will. Anger welled up, and resentment and self-pity. Blame struck out and swam through the lamplight towards this stranger who wore Andrew’s hair.

It’s a dangerous game she’s playing, particularly when she takes on Jack, who is into bondage, something the brothel has not offered before. For Sophie, though, it provides an opportunity to enact revenge on Andrew, displaced though it is to Jack. She knows he’s not Andrew, but she can imagine so – and this works for a while. However, you can’t of course maintain a secret or divided life forever. Eventually the crunch comes, and Sophie risks losing what matters to her most …

Besides her sensitive characterisation, Johnston also does place well. Canberra is rightly depicted as a place in which ordinary people live and go about their business, but she also captures its particular beauty – the “flat, clean” sun which has a “greedy kind of clarity”, and the light and colours of the changing seasons that are so marked in Canberra. The house at number 10 has a character of its own – shabby, but somehow warm with its worn out armchair and cosy kitchen. Not quite what you’d expect for a brothel – though how would I know – and yet it feels true. And there’s Sophie’s garden flat with its comforting garden:

There was the dark green garden, watered to the gills, and the sense it always gave her of luxury, repleteness, a deep satisfaction with its own existence.

Johnston uses imagery lightly but effectively. Sophie’s divided life is represented by her living on one side of the lake and working on the other. We often drive with her over the lake, making the transition clear. As the novel builds to its climax, the colour “red” and words like “fire” and blood” start to appear, suggesting anger, violence (real or imagined), and revenge. Contrasted with this are references to water, primarily via the lake and a Cupid fountain bought for the brothel’s garden, implying something more female, perhaps calming but also a little mysterious. And then, throughout, there’s gardening and its association with nurture and growth, with vision and imagination.

So what really is it about? Revenge is the motive for the plot, but it is not really the theme. Rather, it’s about facing life bravely and taking risks even if you “draw blood”, about friendship and the things you do for your friends, and about love in all its guises. A quiet book, despite its subject matter, and well worth the read.

AusLitMonth2013Dorothy Johnston
The house at number 10
Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2005
ISBN: 9781862546837

Read for Australian Women Writers’ Challenge and Reading Matters’ Australian Literature Month.

42 thoughts on “Dorothy Johnston, The house at number 10 (Review)

  1. I didn’t know the sex industry was legalised in Canberra ! Having recently read a novel about African sex workers in Belgium (‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ by Chika Unigwe) I’m tempted to see what goes on in Australia. Tricky subject matter and it sounds as though you enjoyed this one.

    • Hi Catherine … I may have the wrong term but it’s been decriminalised and brothels are legal but soliciting isn’t.

      It is tricky subject matter but I think Johnston does it well. I think I heard that her next book will be short stories on the topic. Her short story in the Meanjin issue I reviewed recently is set in a Melbourne brothel.

      • Yes I did! Having lived in West Africa for a long time and meeting all types of ladies I thought it was accurate and not tailored to European tastes. Chika kindly wrote a cover comment for my story collection!

  2. There must be something going on in the collective consciousness: I’ve also just been reading and writing about The House at Number 10. I agree that Johnston does a wonderful job exploring the many issues that arise around sex word without descending into salaciousness. Like you I also thought Johnston does ‘place’ well, particularly the ritual crossing of the lake, and the temptation to submerge the difficult parts of life underneath it.

    Thanks for your review. It is interesting to see another perspective on the same things I’ve been so recently pondering about the book.

    • Oh thanks Dani … I thought of you yesterday as I was lunching – not at Caphs – but next door. You will be forever associated with Caphs now! How interesting that you’ve just read it too … I like your comment about the temptation to submerge difficult things beneath the lake. I assume you are going to write a review? You haven’t yet I think?

      • Actually, I’m having lunch at Caphs next week with a friend (her suggestion!) which will be the first time I’ve been there in ages. My review of Number 10 is more or less ready to post and should be up in a few days. Perhaps some of your other readers will also post their thoughts on it now that you’ve elicited so much revitalised interest. It’s a book that deserves to be read and re-read.

        • Oh good Dani … I’ll look out for your review. I agree that it’s worth reading again … I flicked through it as I was writing my review and kept wanting to re-read bits. Enjoy Caphs … I go to Manuka fairly frequently – like tonight – but haven’t eaten at Caphs for ages. I probably eat most at Kopi Tiam, or have coffee at one of the coffee shops.

        • My review is now here should you be interested.

          I was thinking again about Andrew’s “rafts of women”, and your observation on the lake, the cupid fountain and the feminine. I think there is something really interesting to explore there…

  3. Yes, that is a cheeky opening! I read it before I read the rest of your post and had to check and make sure I had got the right book. It’s really well done though.

    • Oh that’s intriguing Stefanie …. That you’d read it before. How did you come across it? I love the fact that you did come across it but would love to know how it came to your attention?

      • I haven’t read the book itself, I started reading your post and then went in search of it to read the beginning before finishing the rest of your post. I looked it up at Book Depository and they let me read the first few pages. 🙂

    • Oh then she’s worth reading Kimbofo … She’s a thoughtful writer with, you feel, things to say. There’s a lot going on underneath this book and I suspect that as I read more I’ll get a greater sense of what that us!

  4. I feel both humble and very grateful, Sue. Thanks so much for your generous and insightful reading. Often, as a writer, one feels that one’s books disappear without a ripple, but you’ve just proved this isn’t so!

    It’s true that prostitution is a ‘theme’, or perhaps I should call it a ‘continuing story’ of mine. The essay on my website, ‘A Script with no Words’ goes some way to explaining this. I hesitate to try and summarize. Creative motivations are usually impossibly tangled anyway.

    That said, I’d be happy to answer any questions you or your readers like to throw at me…

    • Oh thanks Dorothy … you know I was a bit nervous writing this knowing you are around! I decided to be brave though because I did want to read one (at least) of your novels (and have for a long time, but you know how it is!). I still have a Margaret Barbalet novel on my shelves – haven’t read her yet though I bought the book yonks ago. Embarrassing really.

      I read (and enjoyed) this morning your essay “Disturbing undertones” but will now go read “A script with no words”.

      Thanks for the offer to answer questions … feel free to reply if anyone does come in with a question. Meanwhile, I may think up some of my own!

      I’ll add here that I liked the way you gave many of the characters a feature to identify them – Elise and her yoga mat and positions (I loved that), Kirsten and her smoking and failing health, Jack and the way he lifted out of his hips, etc. It gave them presence and differentiated them.

      • Dorothy’s a great writer who has always followed her own path. Try ‘Tunnel Vision,’ (1984) next, a small bleak masterpiece about a brothel in Melbourne. Whispering gums, thank you for your blog! I look forward to your thoughts, one day, on my novel.

        • Oh thanks for that recommendation Margaret … I rather like “small bleak” works … and welcome to Whispering Gums. I will do my best to read your book in the next few months. I do like to get some of the older books out there, as much as it’s good to keep up with new authors and works.

  5. Well, that sounds like a very unusual theme – to say the least. I can’t think of any other books set in a brothel, but why not? It seems a slightly odd way to get revenge on your husband, but no doubt this has happened in real life from time to time. Evidently a good writer though – the ability to write about places as well as people is valuable and gives a novel a sense of being grounded. Excellent review as always.

    • Thanks Tom … I’ve read a memoir set in a brothel, and there are quite a few novels about prostitutes aren’t there. The revenge is complicated and not necessarily well thought through by Sophie … it’s more anger and wanting to vent it. I found it psychologically real, if that makes sense.

  6. This sounds terrific. I read one of Dorothy’s books a long time ago (One for the Master which was shortlisted for the MF in 1997) so I think I should renew the acquaintance! Thanks for an enticing review:)

    • It’s a really interesting book Lisa … I’d heard of One for the master and Maralinga but hadn’t read them. I don’t think I’d heard of the others though I knew she written a crime series.

  7. What a great project, reading around a specific city. I should do more of that, especially for cities that I don’t know personally…so as to feel as though I do know them a little anyhow.

    This one sounds like an early Pat Barker that I read, especially in terms of what you’ve said about its power resting in the relationships. (Blow Your House Down). Thanks for making the introduction, as I’d not heard of this author.

    • Oh thanks Buried … And I’m interested in the Pat Barker. I’ve only read the first Regeneration and liked her writing a lot. BTW Blogger Dinner at Caphs is going one step more than I am and ONLY reading Canberra set books this year …

  8. Pingback: The House at Number 10 by Dorothy Johnston | His Futile Preoccupations or The Years of Reading Aimlessly.....

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