Life in Seven Mistakes is something of a departure from my other books in that, amongst other things, it is a black family comedy. As readers of Messages From Chaos will know, I have always had a penchant for humour and in this novel I really had fun. The premise I started with was this: 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? How does someone begin to care for the ageing parents she has spent her life avoiding?
It seemed to me that a lot of my middle-aged friends and acquaintances were still actively engaged in battles of one kind or another with their parents. They had houses of their own, jobs, children, but many of them still had a fraught, if not emotionally volatile, relationship with one parent or the other. It is not seemly, of course, to be still engaged in blaming-your-parents behaviour when you are middle-aged, and this is difficult territory to work with, recalling as it does the advice given to F Scott Fitzgerald about pulling himself together and acting his age. The ï¿½all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutary daytime advice for everyone’ is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering and to be caught moaning about what-Mummy-did-to-me at age forty is not only embarrassing but pathetic. What is a middle-aged woman supposed to do if her parents still treat her like a child? Get over it?
The novel dramatises this issue, by placing a successful Australian ceramicist, Elizabeth Barton, at the centre of the Barton family drama. Bob Barton, the family patriarch, is a sort of mixture of Les Patterson and Homer Simpson and the mother, Nancy Barton, is cold, controlling and withholding. The action takes place over ten days at Christmas, when the family have gathered together for Christmas and also to celebrate Bob and Nancy’s 50th wedding anniversary. But not everything goes to plan.
Because I am so bad at giving overviews of my own novels, I have relied on the skills of my agent, Margaret Connolly. This is what her website says about the book:
“Over her acclaimed career as a novelist, Susan Johnson has alternated between two strands of the literary imagination – on one hand, in novels such as Messages From Chaos and Hungry Ghosts she has depicted the contemporary world, and the dilemmas faced by women and artists in the context of the present, while on the other, in Flying Lessons, A Big Life and The Broken Book, she reveals an interest in history, and in some of the crucial events and periods which have shaped the character of Australia as a nation.
Life In Seven Mistakes draws both of these strands together. Beginning with a fractious and disagreeable family Christmas in an apartment on the Gold Coast of today, an occasion most readers will find both hilarious and painfully familiar, the novel then steps half a century into the past to follow the budding romance and early career of the attractive, idealistic young couple who are destined to become the cantankerous, domineering grandparents who own the Gold Coast apartment.
A rich sense of irony imbues the beautifully written scenes set against the backdrop of the Snowy River Scheme, that epic of engineering and cultural change in the 1950s, while the bickering and personal dramas of the present-day family maintain the tension all the way to the unexpected, and deeply moving, climax, in which all the threads of the narrative are satisfyingly drawn together. This large-scale, highly emotional, yet often comic, novel is Susan Johnson’s finest achievement so far”.