Susan Johnson was shortlisted for the 1991 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for her novel Flying Lessons (Heinemann 1990), shortlisted for the 1994 National Book Council's Banjo Award for the novel A Big Life (Pan Macmillan 1993) and shortlisted for the National Biography Award 2000 for her memoir A Better Woman (Random House 1999). Her other books include Hungry Ghosts (Pan Macmillan 1996), Messages from Chaos (Harper and Row 1987), Womenlovesex (Random House, 1997 editor and contributor). The Broken Book was shortlisted for the 2005 Nita B Kibble Award; the Best Fiction Book section of the Queensland Premier's Literary Award; the Westfield/Waverley Library Literary Award, and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal Award for an Outstanding Australian Literary Work.
The turbulent lives and careers of Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston have been explored in print several times so the details of their professional and personal development and decline, separately and together, are well known. Susan Johnson’s ambitious new novel utilises events from Clift’s life as the starting point for a complex, moving, lively portrait of a rebellious, ambitious, restless, creative woman’s struggle to realise her ambition to write just one truly memorable book. As a child, Katherine Elgin lives in a limiting Australian coastal town, growing into a strikingly beautiful young woman of splendidly primal appetites and the opportunity, in wartime Sydney, to indulge them. After a passionate affair that ends badly, leaving her depressed, she falls in love with David, a stylish, more famous writer with whom she has children, moves to London, then to a Greek island, eventually returning to Sydney where bitterness, continuing marital acrimony, depression and alcohol lead to her suicide. Had this been the sum of the entire book I would have been disatisfied, despite Susan Johnson’s immediate, crisp, confident writing and the myriad absorbing details of life in the three countries in which the story is set. However she also gives us generous excerpts from Katherine’s semi-autobiographical work-in-progress that are entertaining in themselves while adding to our understanding of the outer story. The device requires the reader to stay focussed and keep the two plotlines separate, which is rewarding fun. Obviously Clift/Johnston aficionados will queue up for this novel but its readership deserves to be much wider. The plots allow the author to develop several themes including those of creativity, artistic rivalry, domestic constraints, clashing egos and the transience of beauty. She also gives the couple’s surviving daughter a voice in a poignant 20-page coda in which the woman, reading her mother Katherine’s archive after many years, both reminiscences and comments on her mother’s wayward, idealised view of herself and her ‘unfailing romanticism about Greek island life. How could anyone think that living in the sun meant a life without shadows?’ I believe this to be a significant new novel, to be recommended to all who enjoy tales with depth, passion, conflict and believable, compelling yet flawed characters. Max Oliver, Sydney bookseller, is currently celebrating his 47th year in the trade C. 2004 Thorpe-Bowker and contributors
A novel of great creative and emotional perspicacity that conveys in equal measure the vivaciousness and tragedy of Clift's life.' - Catherine Keenan, Sun HeraldBoth very Australian and resoundingly international, The Broken Bookconfirms Johnson's status as one of the finest Australian writers ... The language is as graphic and taboo-breaking as it is philosophical and often, fiercely beautiful.' - Jane Cornwell, Sydney Morning Herald... an imaginative work, deftly breathed into, transforming fact into myth' - Sara Dowse, Canberra Times