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Family Comedy or Orwellian Nightmare?

December 3, 2010

Susan Johnson: Life in Seven Mistakes

Three generations gather for a family Christmas in a Gold Coast penthouse. Bob, the patriarch, is a rage-spewing bully, and his wife Nancy an emotionally cold control freak.  In the arctic air conditioning of the penthouse, everyone is cross or fighting with someone else. The central character, Bob and Nance’s daughter Elizabeth, has another week to endure in their company, and just wants to flee back to her home in Melbourne.

Susan Johnson handles this unpromising cast with confidence. She alternates scenes of Christmas present with episodes from the past, starting with the courtship of the idealistic and eager Bob and lively and passionate Nancy and showing how they evolved into the monsters in the Penthouse. These chapters also tell us about their children – Elizabeth and her two brothers – and how they grew into the people they are today. The alternating chapters follow each other in ways that illuminate connections between past and present.

On her website Johnson says her novel is a black family comedy based on the question: what is the moral duty of a person towards her parents if basically she doesn’t have anything much in common with them, except blood? That question is explored, but I think her book is more about power and control.

Bob and Nance are the ones who have the power. They both treat Elizabeth like a child, belittling her work and infantilising her with a baby name. Bob never speaks kindly to her, and often yells abuse. Because she is the central character, reviewers have focussed on her – her moral duty to her parents, her inability to stop acting like a child in their presence. But what of the moral obligation of her parents to stop emotionally abusing her and treating her like a child?

The dynamic is similar to what happens in family violence, with the same outcome – the victim is demoralised and cannot extract herself from the situation. It is suggested in the book that Elizabeth doesn’t leave the penthouse and go back to Melbourne because, at the same time as she passionately hates her parents, she feels intense love for them. Is this not similar to what happens in other abusive situations?

Spoiler Warning!

Which brings us to the ending, which for me is utterly tragic and entirely believable. It reminded me of the end of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where Winston Smith, after his re-education in Room 101, gazes up at the enormous portrait of the leader, and realises he loves Big Brother.

I exaggerate. There’s a slight rapprochement, and Elizabeth surrenders to the claims of love. The ending has been described by reviewers as ‘teary’, ‘touching’, and ‘a happy conclusion’. Johnson’s agent says it is ‘deeply moving.’ Does this mean they think that Nance will stop belittling Elizabeth? (She won’t – it’s just one more click around the cycle of abuse.) Or that, because Elizabeth loves her parents, it doesn’t matter if Nance returns to her previous form?

While I have focussed on power and emotional abuse, the book does explore many other issues, such as the use of conditional love in raising childrern. Johnson is an accomplished writer, and in this book she demonstrates her talents for character creation, plotting, dialogue, structuring a narrative, and historical reconstruction. But I think she has written a fuller, more complex story than the one she says she has written.  

And it’s not a comedy. There’s too much pain.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2012 11:29 am

    Ah good one Bryce … I agree with your last line. And I like your focus on power and control. And yet, I do see some tenderness there as well … I also see where Bob and Nancy come from so I’m not quite ready to call them monsters, albeit that their behaviour tends to be monstrous (at worst), thoughtless (at best). If that makes sense!

  2. Bryce permalink*
    May 31, 2012 4:19 pm

    You’re right. Calling Bob and Nancy monsters was an emotional response – it’s their behaviour that’s monstrous. Johnson skillfully shows how they got to that point, but I still can’t see much tenderness. Thanks for your review at Whispering Gums, I’ve enjoyed revisiting the book.

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