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Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan – Australian vaudeville

December 22, 2020 13 comments

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan (2016) Not available in French.

Yesterday was quite stressful: I was waiting for my daughter to fly back from Singapore via London after her semester at her school’s campus there. She was on the Singapore-London redeye when one after the other, European countries closed their border with the UK due to this new COVID stain. Her journey from London to our home has been an adventure and of course, her luggage is missing. But in the end, all went well and thank God for technology, I was following her trip step by step.

But I needed a good distraction. I started to work on my best-of-the-year list and eventually decided that I needed a sugar-without-cellulite book to keep my mind off things. I killed two birds in one stone when I downloaded Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan. It was the perfect distraction for the day and I reached the Stella stage of my 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Brilliant.

When the book opens, Caroline and Henry just had a fight. They’re married and have two daughters, Mercedes and Paris. (I wonder how they would have named their boys. Aston and Rome?) Caroline discovered that Henry’s cheating on her with Martha, their daughter Mercedes’s grade three teacher. Henry is trying to explain to his daughters why he’s leaving with the teacher. Janice, Caroline’s sister is at their place, ready to take over and watch her nieces for the weekend and this is the scene she witnesses at her arrival:

When I get to Caroline and Henry’s bedroom at the end of the corridor, I’m faced with a scene of devastation. Henry’s suits are spread out over the unmade bed like a two-dimensional gay orgy: here a Paul Smith, there a Henry Bucks, everywhere a Zegna. The trouser-half of each and every one of them is missing its crotch and Caroline, chip off the old block, is peering over them with her reading glasses on the end of her nose and the good scissors in her hand. She’s still in her nightie, freshly foiled hair loose and a silk kimono draped over her shoulders. She looks forlornly at her symbolic castration and sighs, just like Mum did all those years ago. ‘What a waste,’ she says, as she shakes her head. ‘Maybe not super-helpful at this point, Caroline darling,’ I say. She shrugs. ‘These trousers failed in their primary duty, which is to contain the penis. They have only themselves to blame.’

Henry is actually leaving Caroline for Martha. He’s taking her to Noosa for the weekend. When Caroline realized where Henry takes Martha, she chases after them. She’s quite miffed that the mistress is going to Noosa when the wife went to Dromana. I checked what it meant in Australian standards and here’s my American translation: for his lover, Henry planned a trip to the Keys, Florida when he took his wife to a coastal town in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, the neighbours Lesley and Craig stop by, wondering what’s happening. They’ve heard the fight between Caroline and Henry and their nosiness got the better of them, they needed to meddle.

Janice is the self-conscious micro-biologist sister, she divorced Alec two years before and although she dumped him, she hasn’t recovered yet. After Caroline and Henry left, she settles with the girls and decides to sleep in her sister’s room to be near them. She’s quite surprised to find a naked Craig in the bed with her when she wakes up. Apparently, Caroline has secrets too.

Next morning, new discovery. Alec arrives on her doorstep for his planned visit to the girls. Janice didn’t know he was still in touch with Caroline and Henry.

And the show goes on, with a fast-paced plot with witty dialogues. There are laughing-out-loud dialogues, like the one when the adults talk about sex using a gardening analogy to protect the little ears that are sitting in the room. I enjoyed Jordan’s piques:

Honestly Caroline, let it go. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ ‘That’s garbage,’ she says. ‘What doesn’t kill you joins forces with all the other things that don’t kill you. Then they all gang up together to kill you.’

I agree with Caroline. I dislike this “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” saying because I’m not sure it’s true. And it guilts people into thinking that if a tragedy makes them weak, they are wrong and should overcome it and feel stronger.

Janice is overwhelmed by all the people going in and out of the house and she struggles to avoid encounters between two wrong persons. She’s a peacemaker at heart and would like Caroline and Henry to patch things up for their daughters’ sake. And of course, things never go as she’d like and she has to be quick on her feet and adapt.

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts is an Australian vaudeville and it could be a theatre play with doors banging, husbands and lovers hiding behind doors or under the bed, misunderstandings, secrets, allusions and grand scenes. I would love to see this on stage.

You need to be in the right mood to enjoy this kind of book. And I was in the right frame of mind. I had a lot of fun reading it, it didn’t require a lot of brainpower but kept my mind busy and more importantly, it kept worry at bay. Mission accomplished, Toni Jordan!

Other reviews by Lisa and Guy.

Fall Girl by Toni Jordan

September 11, 2012 28 comments

Fall Girl by Toni Jordan 2010 Not available in French.

I heard about Fall Girl on Lisa’s blog a while ago and I’m always grateful when someone discovers good quality light and entertaining books. I like to have some on the shelves whenever I want distraction. And didn’t I need distraction after reading Bord de Mer by Véronique Olmi!  Frequent readers of this blog will notice that I’m terribly late to write this billet as I’ve read the book back in mid-August. In a way it’s an interesting situation since it’s a light book and it shows how much of the book stayed with me.

Della is a member of a family of con artists. The whole family is in the conning business. Her father, her brothers, her uncle, aunt and cousins all work together as a team. When the book opens, she’s all dressed up to her new assignment. This time, billionaire Daniel Metcalf is her prey; his foundation grants money to scientist to carrying on researches. He doesn’t mind investing is crazy projects. So Della now needs to look and sound like skilled scientist to persuade him to give her money to prove there still are Tasmanian tigers in Australia and more precisely in the Wilsons Promontory National Park near Melbourne. She decided this scheme after reading an article about him and his remembrance of seeing a Tasmanian tiger as a child. The problem is that Tasmanian tigers are thought extinct since the 20thC…

Daniel asks to meet her at her office at the university she’s supposed to teach at. She can’t refuse and the organization of the fake office is a funny read. After that, Daniel asks to participate to the researches in the park. The whole escapade is organized in haste and starts quite well but Della thinks something is off, that Daniel looks suspicious. She wonders if he’s lying to her. And the reader wonders who’s conning who.

It’s an entertaining book, seeing all the details of the schemes and the lengths Della and her family are willing to go to get money is really funny. Della’s family put a lot of work into it, much more than they would if they earned money with a regular job. Their whole life is shadowy, made of flights, erasing traces not to be caught. Della never went to school to be as little noticeable as possible. They live in a closed circle, only trusting another family. They sort of live in a parallel world just for the thrill of the cases, the supposedly freedom linked to that bohemian situation.

But Della is at a turning point: does she want to keep on doing this “job” as it is the only occupation she knows? Doesn’t she long for a “normal” life? What used to be glamorous doesn’t seem that much fun these days and the money isn’t flowing into the house. With new technologies, it becomes more and more difficult to set up people as it is easier for them to check references and stories. We follow how her job goes on and also share her doubts about her life.

It seems to me that Toni Jordan had a lot of fun writing this story and describing this strange family living in a house in Cumberland Street which is full of hides, gadgets and secret way-outs. It’s a house which enchants children (Aren’t all children attracted to secret passages?) but doesn’t appeal that much to grown-ups who see it under the cold light of adulthood. The passages only mean that the inhabitants of the house need a quick way to escape and avoid prision. She also researched con artists before writing this book. It’s a life I can’t understand as I’m too honest and lazy to see the draw. For me, telling the truth remains the easiest way, at least you don’t have to keep track of all you’ve invented to remain consistent. (Like Seymour in Elliot Allagash, by the way). It’s fun to read in a book though.

PS: Lisa also interviewed Toni Jordan and you can read her post here.

My edition is a UK one and the cover is appalling, again. The flowery wall-paper behind the picture of that girl is ugly.

Addition by Toni Jordan

April 1, 2012 19 comments

Addition by Toni Jordan 2008. French title : Tu pourrais rater intégralement ta vie.

 After discovering that John Self + Lou Ford = Matt Freeman  I was more than happy to bury myself into Toni Jordan’s Addition. Just what kind of addition is this?

Grace Vandenburg is 35, lives in Melbourne and hasn’t worked for 25 months. Although we only discover later in the novel why she lost her job as a teacher, we are immediately aware of Grace’s problem. Grace counts. Everything. Her footsteps, the stairs, the number of seeds on her cake. She measures everything, keeps in touch with the outside temperature. Numbers qualify things, put reassuring fences in her life.

Numbers rule her life as comforting milestones. She strictly follows the same schedule everyday; she does exactly the same things at the same time. She’s fond of 10s and thus buys things by tens at the supermarket. She’s single, usually interacts with no one but her mother and her sister Jill who minutely call every Sunday at 8:00pm and 8:15pm respectively. “Interact” is perhaps optimistic here. Grace talks to them over the phone but there is no real conversation; they exchange small news and everyone thinks their duty is done. Grace’s only relationship is with her ten-year-old niece Hilary.

Grace admires Nikola Tesla a Serbian-American scientist. He was an important contributor to the birth of commercial electricity and is best known for developing the modern alternating current (AC) electrical supply system. (Wikipedia) To me his name brought back vague memories of unintelligible physics classes. To Grace, he’s like a lifebelt. He was also a bit off-kilter and was still a genius, something Grace finds comforting.

Grace has her life mapped out, so when she realizes at the cashier of her usual supermarket that she picked only nine bananas instead of ten, her need for accuracy is such that she relieves the customer next to her of the banana he has in his basket. She’s horrified by her slip and is still recovering from it in the parking lot when the above mentioned customer catches up with her and enquires after the reason why she stole that banana.

This is how and when she meets Seamus. What will come out of this encounter is up to you to discover. In other words, read the book.

Addition is a lovely book. I wish I could do it justice by writing a lovely review. It’s a first person narrative and we see the events and life in general through Grace’s eyes. She knows her addiction to number limits her life and she lives with it.

Life would be different if I didn’t count, I know that.

But without it the world would be too big and too dangerous. An endless void. I’d be lost all the time. I’d be overwhelmed.

She has come to think of her difference as a blessing, most of the time. She sees life through a peculiar angle, blurts out hilarious replies and is as funny as her illness allows her to be. But despite her acceptance, she is suffering:

I want it to stop. I want it all to stop.

Suddenly I’m sick of it. Sick of counting all the time. Of all the little games and rules and orders and lists and chewing my food 30 times and drinking a cup of tea before bed every night. I want to have a job and go to the movies and have a family and people over for a dinner that is not chicken and vegetables. I want to be like everybody else. I want to run as fast as I can in bare feet and on grass like I’m a child and my hair is streaming behind me. I want to run and I want to feel my leg muscles stretch and pull and my chest heave in the service of my freedom.

I don’t want to count anymore.

Don’t think it’s a sad book, because it isn’t. Addition is a plea to accept difference. We want to heal mental illness for people to be “normal”. But define “normal”? It also subtly points out how our societies want us to comply with the married-two-kids-a-house-and-two-cars model. There is a tendency to present it as the only way to be happy. Once I heard someone say about a thirtysomething single woman that she had no life. How can that be? She had friends, family, a job and hobbies. Isn’t it a life? As Grace points out:

Most people miss their whole lives, you know. Listen, life isn’t when you are standing on top of a mountain looking at the sunset. Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born or that time you were swimming in deep water and a dolphin came up alongside you. These are fragments. 10 or 12 grains of sand spread throughout your entire existence. These are not life. Life is brushing your teeth or making a sandwich or watching the news or waiting for the bus. Or walking. Every day, thousands of tiny events happen and if you’re not watching, if you’re not careful, if you don’t capture them and make them count, you could miss it.

You could miss your whole life.

I do like the idea of cherishing mundane events and make the most of everyday life. Jordan’s novel is a light read, funny, with an unusual character. I enjoyed the way she intertwined Grace’s life with references to Tesla’s life. I was caught by the book, I couldn’t put it down. Light literature isn’t easy to write. The author is walking on a high wire, on one side they can fall into the void of so much comedy it becomes vulgar or silly and on the other side they stare at the dangerous precipice of mawkishness.

I bought Addition after reading a post about Toni Jordan on Lisa’s blog. Thanks Lisa! I had a great time.

PS: Now that you know about Grace, you can guess there are a lot of numbers in the book. That explains the foreword I talked about here.

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