Susan Johnson’s new novel The Landing opens with a misquoting of the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice: ‘If a separated man – about to be divorced – is in possession of a good fortune, must he be in want of a new wife?’ The nod to Austen is fitting given that Johnson has applied the advice Austen once gave her niece on how to construct a novel – ‘Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on’.
Johnson’s equivalent of Meryton is The Landing, an idyllic hamlet north of Brisbane that is a vital presence in the novel. We hear the rustling trees and the cacophony of bird song that wakes the residents of the closely-held allotments. We feel our toes slip into the silt at the edge of the lake and taste the salt-tang of the afternoon breeze that bounces over the sand dunes.
The Landing is secluded. There’s no internet connection and mobile phone signals are intermittent. The town doesn’t yet boast single-origin coffee houses or gourmet eateries (though the reader can feel their approach) so we generally see the residents within their own houses or at The Orpheus – The Landing’s sole pub and eatery. The effect of this cloistering from the outside world is to draw the residents closer. We see them in focus and unadorned, their follies and foibles writ large.
The subject of the Austen quote is Jonathan Lott. He’s a successful construction lawyer in his mid-fifties whose grief over being abandoned by his wife Sarah (for another woman) is just beginning to subside. Jonathan is in the first, tender stages of nascent optimism in his new holiday home at The Landing. Might there be a fresh beginning? Even new love?
Jonathan’s neighbours at The Landing include Penny Collins and Gordon ‘Gordie’ Williams. Penny is wedged between her imperious, narcissistic mother Maree, and her gorgeous, impulsive daughter Scarlett. Maree’s insufferable behaviour has seen her evicted from yet another senior citizen’s home and she is now determined to move in with Penny. Scarlett has scandalised The Landing by running off with a married neighbour old enough to be her father, and producing two bratty children in quick succession. Penny’s artistic yearnings are throttled by the outsized personalities in her family and her own self-doubt (a theme reminiscent of Johnson’s 2004 novel The Broken Book).
Gordie is an affable, erudite Scot in his 80s who drinks both to pass the time and to assuage his regret at his former philandering ways. He now wishes he had laid his stolen afternoons in the arms of mistresses at the feet of his deceased wife, Pam. Gordie’s daughter Anna arrives at The Landing unexpectedly, trailing broken marriages and half-baked bohemian philosophies in her wake.
Weaving among the residents but never really one of them is seven year old Giselle. She is neglected by her barely functional mother and often hungry. Trying to make connections, she scribbles drawings, questions and biographical information on The Landing’s pavements (‘My fafit food is’). She is variously viewed with pity and impatience by the other residents.
Each character is struggling to find equilibrium (a ‘landing’) between their needs and expectations and their present realities. How do you reinvent yourself as a single person when you’ve been happily coupled for decades? How do you reconcile yearning ambition with middling talent? How do you realise your potential in an unpromising environment? These are the tensions that drive the narrative.
The themes are weighty, but Johnson’s touch is light. Where there was a top-note of astringency in her last novel, My Hundred Lovers, The Landing is gorgeously fey. It flows seamlessly (and often hilariously) between characters’ self-perceptions and how they are viewed by their peers and neighbours. It’s a wry, warm and compassionate book.