Toni Jordan took as inspiration for her third novel Nine Days a photograph from the archives of The Argus showing, on a crowded platform, a woman held high on a man’s shoulders so she can kiss the soldier leaning towards her from the train window, presumably as he heads off to war. It is a powerful image and Jordan’s book does it justice.
Nine Days does not take place over nine consecutive days as the title might imply. Rather, the narrative traverses nine significant days in the lives of nine different members of the Westaway family, travelling back and forward though time between 1939 and the present.
The first voice is that of fifteen-year-old Kip Westaway, who has dropped out of school to work as a stablehand. His twin brother Francis is a star pupil. Kip’s father has died and his mother Jean has taken in a boarder to help make ends meet, leaving older sister Connie — whom Kip adores — with the laundry and housework. Kip’s effervescence belies the family’s impoverished circumstances, his hopefulness and humour resonating throughout the book.
The narrative ricochets between the time of Kip’s childhood and the present, each chapter told from a different character’s perspective. Because the chapters are not sequential, the story unfolds like a mystery. Certain characters get together before we know how. Others are dead before we know why. It is a measure of Jordan’s talent that this structure is not disorientating, but cleverly propels the narrative and keeps the reader alert for clues to explain the various characters’ fates.
The novel’s success is further derived from the authentic voices of its diverse cast. We hear from Kip’s twin daughters, Stanzi and Charlotte, at different points in their adult lives. We hear the Westaway’s neighbour Jack Husting — young, restless, feeling the pressure to enlist — falling in love with Connie. We hear the voice of Francis as a grief-stricken twelve-year-old, trying to come to terms with his father’s death; and Annabel, briefly Francis’ girlfriend, ultimately Kip’s wife. There is a heartbreaking chapter told in the voice of the widowed Jean Westaway in 1939, followed by the defiant voice of Charlotte’s teenaged son Alec in 2006.
It is Alec who unearths the photo that graces the book’s cover. But only in the final chapter, told in the voice of Kip’s sister Connie, are its secrets revealed. Re-reading the bittersweet ending still makes me tear up.
The other character in this novel is the Melbourne inner city suburb of Richmond, ‘famed for its slums’ in 1939. As the teenage Kip describes it:
You can smell every factory in Richmond from our little backyard when the wind’s right. Between the end of the footy finals and East the hot sweet of the jam hits you first, then the tomato sauce, next burning malt and hops. Now in the middle of winter there’s nothing but the tannery and the Yarra, and it’s like the dunny cart had a permanent spot in the lane…
Jack Hustings bemoans ‘the sad crushed spaces’ of city living. ‘Advertising hoardings on every corner so a man can’t even think his own thoughts without interruption.’
Alec, living in the original Westaway family home sixty years on, laments that ‘the olds…live on the hill in the boring Anglo part’ of a now gentrified Richmond, rather than the ‘way cooler’, Saigon-esque Victoria Street.
Having once lived in the very street where Jordan locates the Westaway home, I can vouch for how accurately she captures the mood of the place.
A family saga that breaks the mould, Nine Days is ultimately a book about love, as poignant and romantic as the photograph that inspired it.
One of my favourite reads of 2012.
Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlett Stiletto Award and has twice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards.