This is the book I wrote while my heart was breaking. In 1990, when I first began the exploratory work that would eventually become A Big Life I had just moved to Hong Kong with my first husband. I felt stranded in my new life: I didn’t speak Cantonese, and Hong Kong is a Chinese city (I had just recently begun to learn French for the first time at the age of 32, after being awarded a residency to the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris – and, after struggling with French, Cantonese was out of the question). It was quickly clear to me that not being a stockbroker, a lawyer or even corporate material, I would find life in Hong Kong somewhat puzzling. It is a city whose lifeblood, whose raison d’être is commerce: the making of money.
I began researching the idea of expatriation, sitting in the University of Hong Kong library amongst Cantonese students reading books about stranded people. I was particularly drawn to stories, documentation, reports about displaced persons in the wake of the Second World War and, eventually, I made my way to some characters who had washed up in Australia. In researching postwar migration I came across the story of the Snowy Rivers Scheme, an ambitious plan to provide electricity by flooding entire valleys and towns. These drowned places struck my imagination.
I wrote and wrote and eventually I had a 100 or so pages but I have to tell you that it never really came alive. I’ve written four novels now and I can say that for me there is always a moment of desperation. There is always terror, some unavoidable moment when everything seems lost. I have never written a book yet without this dreadful moment. My real life in Hong Kong was falling apart when suddenly Billy Hayes walked in, a young Australian acrobat, or tumbler, who had left his homeland for England. I had started out with a group of people coming to Australia and now I had a young man who had left it. A young man whose career was air, making something out of nothing.
In many ways the character of Billy Hayes is my most autobiographical of all, his story a metaphor for my own experience in Hong Kong. I felt myself to be strangely invisible and Billy’s passion for his tumbling, his work of air, is like my own passion for writing, my work of air.
A Big Life is Johnson’s second novel and explores the topic of human innocence. Billy, an acrobatic, tumbling boy who wants nothing more than to do what he loves: to tumble, to feel ”the joy of fighting air”, to twist and turn and whirl, high above the stage, shining in the spotlight. Billy wants ”a big life” and we follow him through the ups and downs from his birth into a family of eight children. Johnson reveals with passion and depth of character the people in Billy’s life, including his charismatic mother Sapphire Hayes who embodies tenderness and strength of original character, Billy’s father who is the catalyst for him leaving his family and friends in Australia, the mercurial Bubbles Drake whom Billy falls in love with and Reginald Tsang whom he befriends. A Big Life is set in the 1930s and 1940s in Australia where Billy and his family grow-up, and in London where Billy performs in seaside towns which he describes with a childlike response of wide-eyed innocence and surprise that he somehow never loses.
A Big Life is a complex novel that incorporates many themes through its character interactions, and the book’s sense of period is maintained consistently and adds to its unusual edge. This is Johnson’s third novel and it is an ambitious and creative effort that exposes the life and innermost motivations of a talented young man with sensitivity and creative literary ease.
It has been published to critical acclaim in Australia, England and the USA, where the New York Times Book Review wrote: “A Big Life is written with a touch so gentle that its sadness grows slowly, imperceptibly, like the passage from youth to middle age”.
Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “Billy is an unusual yet ultimately winning hero, whose long learning curve from boyhood fantasy to a chastened, unillusioned adulthood readers will follow with a growing sympathy. Johnson writes in a fluid, colourful prose that frequently captures the flavor of a passing moment with something of Billy’s own willful naïveté. Ultimately, Billy’s life gives the lie to the myth of the “big” life. Rather, it’s in their recognition that the intensely felt moment can outpace grand ambition that these affectionately realized characters achieve their true grandeur.”