Dorothy Johnston, Eight pieces on prostitution (Review)

Dorothy Johnston, Eight pieces on prostitution book cover

Lifted, with approval I hope, from Johnston’s website

A few months ago I wrote a Monday Musings on the Australian Society of Authors’ digital publishing initiative, Authors Unlimited e_Book portal. At the time I decided to try it out and bought Dorothy Johnston‘s collection of short stories, Eight pieces on prostitution.

The collection comprises 7 short stories and a long story or novella. One of the stories, ‘Mrs B’, I read earlier this year in Meanjin‘s Canberra edition. Some of the other stories have been published before too: ‘The Man Who Liked To Come With The News’ (The State of the Art, 1983), ‘Commuting’ (Island, issue 52, Spring 1992, and elsewhere), and ‘The Studio’ (Southerly, Winter 1996).

The first thing I should say about this collection is that it is not salacious reading. That is, it’s not erotica. Johnston’s interest is the lives, the experience, of prostitutes as people. Who are they? Why are they doing what they are doing? How do they negotiate their relationships, professional and personal? How do they live the life they’ve chosen and are they happy?

Johnston’s prostitutes are neither glamorous nor tarty, and most work for themselves or in small establishments. They are not the prostitutes of popular imagination. That is, they tend not to work in fancy parlours under control of a madam nor in that sleazy underworld borderland managed by pimps. They are, instead, either ordinary employees or small businesswomen. Some are career prostitutes, others are university students or single mothers who need to support themselves, while still others, like Eve in ‘The Studio’, are a little more mysterious:

She lives in a small flat. She chose the national capital because she imagined it to be a city where she could fade into the background, where she could hide.
Johnston’s characters are often wistful or even a little sad, but they are never pathetic. They are intelligent, and Johnston respects not judges them. They are not powerless, either, though sometimes the power they have is limited to their domain and can be tenuous. They can be a little lost, or perhaps just at a cross-roads in their lives. Maria in ‘The Cod-piece and the Diary Entry’ is uncertain about the world and her place in it. She thinks, when she moves and loses a client:
Looking back, she could not shake the feeling that she’s been on the point of understanding something important while in Harry’s company, that understanding had been no more than a breath away.
Sandy in ‘Names’ admires university student Gail’s strength and resilience:

She never let herself fall into a chair like I did when she came back from a client, slumping my stomach and letting the smile drop off my face.

There is a continuity between these characters and the three women in her novel The house at number 10 which I reviewed earlier this year. Like Elizabeth Jolley, Johnston is not afraid to re-use or develop characters across her oeuvre. I rather like that.

The pieces are set in places known to Johnston – Canberra and Melbourne. We get a clear sense of those cities, but even more we are let into the rooms the prostitutes inhabit – the ones they work in, the ones they relax in between clients. We learn about the things that are part of their daily routine. Sophie, for example, in ‘Commuting’, finds that when she steps outside work
petrol fumes are a relief after hours of perfumed towels and bubble bath.
The final piece is the novella ‘Where the Ladders Start’. The title comes from Yeats’ poem, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’:
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

It concerns a three-woman brothel established by Sue, who’d been dreaming for years of a “better system”. It’s “a co-operative … Tough that word, but they’d risen to its challenges”. Now though, the dream is being severely tested as they cope with the death of a client, on the first page, from erotic asphyxiation, “the choking game”.  The story explores the “one for all, all for one” ideal. Are there limits to trust, and how far should you take loyalty, particularly when it starts to be to your own detriment? Johnston sets the story at the beginning of the new millennium adding an ironic overlay to the situation confronting the women. What sort of millennium are they setting up for themselves by their response to the death?

As in all her stories, Johnston’s view of human nature here is warm but realistic, clear-eyed. She pits the “never let a chance go by” attitude against the desire to protect, care and trust, and then tests that against the need for self-preservation.

Johnston’s language is a delight to read. She’s precise but expressive, using imagery with a light touch:

The freedom to ask each other questions danced and shimmied in the air.

She can be quietly ironic:

Laura went on sitting in the kitchen like a Buddha, or more accurately a simpleton, a girl who’d left her mind someplace and forgotten to go back for it.

Is Laura simple or not is the question we ponder through most of the story.

In dealing with a mysterious death, “Where the Ladders Start” introduces us to that other string on Johnston’s writing bow, the crime novel. It’s a clever story, well-plotted, nicely maintaining a tension between mystery and clarity. Like most of the stories, there’s no simple resolution. Life, Johnston shows, is a messy business.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. While there is a commonality between the women, giving the collection a lovely coherence, there is also difference. Each character is unique, each story engaging. If there’s an overall theme, it is one of survival, or perhaps more accurately, resilience. Her women get on with life. They make decisions, some good, some bad, some we are not sure about, but, and here’s the important thing, they don’t stand still. Do read it. At $9.95, I reckon this is a steal.

Dorothy Johnston
Eight pieces on prostitution
Australian Society of Authors, 2013
Availability: Online download for $9.95 from the ASA site

19 thoughts on “Dorothy Johnston, Eight pieces on prostitution (Review)

  1. Sounds like a good read. Do you think it is a realistic portrayal? So often it is over-romanticized or pushed down into the dregs of crime and drug use. Is prostitution legal in Australia?

    • Thanks Stefanie. Yes, I think it’s very realistic … these come across as real women working in an industry on the edge of acceptability. It’s certainly not romanticised but neither it is presented as sordid. See Dorothy’s answer below re the legalisation. Legalisation is an issue in a couple of the stories.

  2. Johnston’s is the kind of writing I respect, individual, cleareyed, lyrical, haunting, yet never straining for effect. Great too that she has bitten the bullet and published this fine collection on line.

  3. Thank you for such a generous and thoughtful review – I feel quite overwhelmed!
    In answer to Stefanie’s question, the ACT pioneered the de-criminalisation of prostitution in Australia, along with Victoria; but the ACT changes were more wide-reaching. At the time, i interviewed a lot of people about it, including police officers, who were glad to be able to spend their time pursuing other crimes. It’s part of Canberra’s underside which has long interested me as a fiction writer. One of Fyshwick’s most popular brothels used to be called ‘Parliament House’. I like this kind of irony and internal sending up. It points to a side of Canberra that is often missed, in my view.
    And thank you, Sara, for your kind words too. I have to say I’ve enjoyed the experience of publishing my collection of stories through the ASA.

    • Glad you like it Dorothy. I was rather amused when you popped up commenting on a post yesterday just as I was finalising this review. I read the book while I was travelling and half wrote the review then but just couldn’t get the clear head to finish it. It was a great book to read on the move – short stories often are, and these are really engaging. Wonderful characters. I could have quoted sentences and sentences, but hopefully people will read and see for themselves.

    • You may be interested to know that we have our very own brothel here in Balgowlah, on the corner of Condamine and Sydney roads, the main intersection here. I often think of your stories when I pass it and try to guess which women going to and from the shopping mall work there. Upstairs in the building with the ‘OPEN’ sign flashing.

      • And, is it easy to guess, Sara? So often our image is from TV. Those women standing by dark wet streets in shows like The Bill, or being hustled into buildings by tattooed/pierced/gold jewelry wearing pimps, but I’m learning these are probably the minority, and that the “working girl” is a far more complex being.

        • No it isn’t that easy but there are some that fit the stereotype and stand out amid the young mothers pushing strollers in their Lorna Jane suits and old ladies like me.

        • That makes sense, Sara. I can imagine from that picture you paint of the neighbourhood being able to make some reasonable assumptions, though even then I guess we need to be careful about stereotypes! Having read Johnston I can see that the reality is quite different from past assumptions. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it.

  4. I am often asked whether my stories, and my novel, ‘The House at Number 10’ are ‘realistic’ portrayals of prostitution. I find this a very hard question to answer, though it’s usually meant sincerely. I find myself wanting to point out the bizarre, theatrical nature of the business, to turn the question back and ask how a writer should portray a reality that so often borders the surreal. I take comfort from reminding myself that, after all, I’m not obliged to answer this or any other question in general terms, but, instead, to try and be true to my experience and what, over the years, my imagination has made of it. Thank you Whispering Gums and Sara for continuing this conversation.

    • Thanks Dorothy. That’s a great answer, because, really, it goes to the heart of all fiction in a way doesn’t it. However, you certainly explain here what I think I read in your stories/novels about the subject. You present it as “real”, but as a very particular sort of “reality”, one that’s removed somewhat from the norms (whatever they are!). By “real” here I mean, your stories ring “true”, feel “faithful”, seem “ordinary” despite their “extraordinariness”. Does that make sense?

  5. Sounds like an intriguing read and a valid way of revealing/studying these lives. Last year I read ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ by Nigerian/Flemish writer Chika Unigwe which also speaks very tastefully and artfully about the subject of African sex workers in Europe. It had much to do with dashed dreams, complex living situations, and of course pure exploitation, and is also beautifully written. I’ll be ordering Dorothy’s book!

  6. Pingback: October 2013 Roundup: Classics and Literary | Australian Women Writers Challenge

  7. Pingback: October 2013 Roundup: Classics and Literary | New Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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