Memory is not democratic. It creates its own hierarchy concerning what will be at the top and what will be at the bottom. Memory decides what it remembers and what it forgets, and what emerges from the daguerreotype. (p.142)
Memory is the device employed by author Susan Johnson to explore the life and loves of Deborah, a woman approaching the age of fifty and coming to terms with her inevitable movement toward death via the body’s decline. Johnson cleverly launches into a hundred or so memory moments – brief snatches of a life lived – from the starting point of Deborah’s ageing body, so that a scar for instance links the present physical being back to an earlier time when she burned herself while ironing naked at the age of twenty-four. Here, it is the skin that remembers the scar and the period of time that she lived ‘inside an erotic swoon’, with an irresponsible and intoxicating lover ‘whose skin felt like home’. So captivated by the erotic was she that she could barely concentrate – hence the burn. ‘The small triangular scar’ on her hip is an emblem of female desire that also reminds of a love triangle fantasy.
This is not, however, an erotic novel and it is too intelligent and mature to be classified as ‘chick lit’. Not to denigrate the entire genre of course! My point is that it is not light and vacuous as some of the fiction labelled ‘chick lit’ is; and its protagonist is a mature woman whereas, unless I am mistaken, the typical chick lit protagonist is twenty or thirty-something. It is ‘an auto-biography of a body’ according to the promotional material from publisher Allen & Unwin, ‘the story of a woman’s life told through her ‘flesh memories’, a mediation on mortality’. This is an accurate description of My Hundred Lovers.
There are of course several erotic memories of fantasy and reality, with both male and female lovers. In one section, Deborah inadvertently sleeps with three men in one day but this is quite accidental. Nevertheless, at this stage in her life she ‘still calculated her worth on how many men wished to sleep with her’ but her sexual encounters are nothing like the emotionless and empty orgies of Catherine Millet in The Sexual Life of Catherine M. Clearly Deborah, at the age of almost fifty, recognises that her younger self calculated her worth this way. The older Deborah celebrates her liberation – ‘My body, mine at last.’
The ‘lovers’ of the title are not purely physical lovers. Deborah celebrates many of life’s simple pleasures, such as sunshine remembered from her newborn days when her mother left her in the garden in her pram. She remembers ‘the feeling of the loving sun on her newborn skin, as warm as a hand’. Also from her time as a baby, she revisits the smell and feel of grass.
Grass smells like the earth, like summer, like joy, and she tries to catch tiny blades of it in her fist, and to stuff it into her mouth. She longs to eat it, to have it inside herself, to be the grass, the blade, the smell of ripeness. (p.13)
Yes, much of the novel is written in the third person, but some of it in first person.
This changing of narrative style creates an effect of the protagonist oscillating between distance from and intimacy with experiences.
Other examples of love memories explored are the pleasures of food, music, cigarettes and flight, and the phenomenon of the object-sexualist – the power of attraction invested in particular objects such as gardens, cars and houses. What is celebrated are the taste-sensations of foods, the mood altering effect of music – ‘a shimmering door to rapture’, the dangerous ‘siren call’ of the cigarette, the way flight suspends and moves a body through time and space, while allowing a view of the ‘passing glories of the world’, and how all of these sensual experiences create a feeling of pleasure of almost spiritual significance. This is the intelligence and cleverness I speak of – to be able to explore the ordinary/extraordinary feelings, perceptions and experiences of a particular person and raise them to the realm of the spiritual, recognising that at one level they are just everyday occurrences, common to many. Rarely do we take the time to zoom in on these experiences, to explore the senses and consider their relationship to body and psyche.
Of course there are some experiences that will resonate with some readers and not with others. I found myself frequently nodding ‘yes’ to the various memories and thinking how well the author had portrayed the female psyche, but then I was forced to pull back and recognise that other female readers may not agree at all that this was an accurate portrayal. We each bring to the reading our own thoughts and experiences. And what of the male reader; the intersex reader? I cannot comment on what another human being might find a connection with in this novel, let alone a reader of another gender / orientation, however I am reporting my honest reaction while immersed in the act of reading.
After reading My Hundred Lovers, I did begin to question some aspects of the text. The main question left hovering in my mind was that Deborah and I share a name and an approximate age, yet it felt to me that I was reading about someone who grew up in an earlier era. This, of course, may be that although the novel was published in 2012 and the protagonist is approaching fifty, the time setting may be much earlier – perhaps a decade or so. Indeed, My Hundred Lovers was probably many years in the writing. Deborah seemed to have a more direct alliance with feminism and politics, which I felt indicated that she was of an age to be able to more fully connect with and participate in the movements and events she refers to, which seem to have been at their height when this reader was still a young child. This isn’t a criticism of the novel, rather an observation of the somewhat unsettling effect of being drawn in to the familiar and resonant, to then be completely thrown by (yet interested in) the unfamiliar, for example the politics of the longed for Justine Gervais who exclaims that it is ‘a political act to sleep with a woman’ – why can’t it just be a sensual one, or an act of love?
The other unfamiliar, for this reader, was Deborah’s experience of living in France. I guess I was hoping for an Australian setting, but again this is not a criticism of the novel, more a personal reflection on the desire to read more Australian novels set in Australia.
The novel is written as a series of short ‘chapters’ so lends itself well to the interrupted reading experience, as well as the long luxurious reading experience. It is written in highly poetic prose and I marked many sections that I intended to refer to in this review, but which I would have been tempted to include as they appear in their entire brief chapter. Let me leave the pleasure of the language to those readers who will appreciate it!
I have also not yet mentioned the complex family relationships touched on in this novel. There is enough written of Deborah’s relationships, with her son, her husband, and her sister, on which to build a larger picture and to contemplate the demise of her marriage and the pain of losing her husband to her more beautiful sister. There is a brilliant emotional contrast provided between two scenes involving the sister – one in which the sisters share a bed and cuddle together for emotional comfort following the death of their mother; the other a confrontation in the aftermath of Deborah learning about her sister’s intimate relationship with her husband.
Readers who prefer a plot and a linear narrative may find themselves frustrated with the non-linear, seemingly plotless, structure of My Hundred Lovers, but those who appreciate the poetic, memories bubbling and rising to the surface, just enough detail on which to build a picture of the complexities of ordinary lives, and the exploration of sensual experience will likely enjoy reading this novel.