Toni Jordan’s latest novel, Nine days, is somewhat of a departure from her first two novels which are more in the chicklit vein, albeit chicklit with a difference. The thing is, I don’t generally read chicklit, but I did enjoy Addition and Fall girl, so I was more than willing to read Jordan’s next offering. I was not disappointed.
Nine days was, according to the Author’s note, inspired by a photograph from the State Library of Victoria’s Argus collection. The photograph forms the cover of the book’s first edition: it depicts an unidentified soldier leaning out of a train window to kiss an also unidentified young woman. Jordan has woven around this photo a multi-generational story that spans six decades or so from the eve of world war 2 to the present. The title refers to the nine days upon which the book’s nine chapters are built – with an added complexity. This is a multiple point of view novel like, say, Christos Tsiolkas‘ The slap and Elliot Perlman‘s Seven types of ambiguity, but while those two novels progressed their narratives in a linear chronology via the changing voices, Jordan’s chronology jumps around in a seemingly chaotic manner. However, there is method to it, because careful reading reveals thematic or structural connections, even if not chronological ones, between each chapter.
That’s the basic structure, but the real interest of course is in what the novel’s about. How, though, to describe the plot of such a novel succinctly? The best way is to simply say that the novel tells the story of three generations of one family, which is, by the way, an impressive thing to attempt in 250 pages. There is a central mystery – for the reader and for the family though they aren’t necessarily aware of it – to do with the two figures in the photograph. Each chapter is named simply for the character in whose first person voice it is told. The first is Kip, a nearly 15-year-old boy in 1939, who has just had to leave school and go to work because of the recent death of his father. Other chapters are told by his twin brother Francis/Frank (who gets to stay at school), his mother Jean, and his much loved big sister Connie. Interspersed with their stories are those told by Kip’s wife, Jack who lives next door, Kip’s twin daughters, and even his grandson. For each person something happens – some choice must be, or is, made – in the particular day they describe, which impacts their life’s direction.
It’s an ambitious structure, but Jordan succeeds, for a few reasons. A big one is her ability to create strong, believable characters who are likable despite their faults. It helps that the first character, Kip, is particularly engaging. He’s easy-going and generous-hearted, but is also endowed with a good dose of wits and common-sense. He plays an important role in the denouement. His daughters, the overweight, rather uptight Stanzi, and the hippy-alternative-eco-warrior Charlotte, are clearly differentiated and provide a touch of humour with their (mostly) good-natured sibling bickering and point-scoring. Most contemporary female readers will see bits of themselves or people they know in these two. And, while I’m speaking of women, I can’t resist quoting Kip’s young, restless sixteen-year old grandson Alec:
I’ve wasted my whole entire existence up to now. I’ve done absolutely nothing with it. I’ve just been counting down the months of my life. Sixteen years, totally useless. I live with three women. A big night at my place is when the ABC runs a Jane Austen marathon. God I hate that Bennet chick. Marry him already, and spare us the drama.
Another reason the book works is that Jordan manages place and time well. Counterbalancing the seemingly erratic chronology is the fact that place is kept simple. The whole novel occurs pretty much in one suburb in working class Melbourne. This helps keep we readers grounded, as do two little motifs – a “lucky” shilling and a purple pendant – which appear on and off throughout the novel. I was initially concerned, after the first couple of chapters, that the shilling was going to be a little heavy-handed or mechanistic – particularly given the shilling graphic commencing each chapter – but it’s not. Like the pendant, it appears in some, but not other, chapters, and in so doing helps keep us focused without irritating us.
In other words, the book is handled very well technically. But, that’s not what makes a book, in the end, is it? What makes a book good is its heart – and the heart of this book is warm but real. Its particular subjects are war, abortion, religious and class difference, social conscience and social mobility, but it is also a universal tale about how love (marital, romantic, sibling, parental, and so on) forms the glue that keeps us going. This might sound corny, but that’s not how it comes across. The novel has its share of grittiness; and relationships have their tensions, conveying the message that love (whether marital, sibling or parental) is not a simple endpoint but something to be worked at.
This may not be the book for readers who like long family sagas they can lose themselves in, but for those like me who enjoy works which tease and leave ties undone, much like life really, Nine days has plenty to offer.
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)