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.