Many heartbreaks: My Hundred Lovers

You know I love a good dose of book-talk, and was rapt last month to take part in my very first read-along. Hosted by Bree of All The Books I Can Read, a whole bunch of bookish bloggers, including myself, read and discussed the poetic My Hundred Lovers, by Susan Johnson (Allen and Unwin).

The book promised to be lusty and powerful:

“A woman, on the eve of her fiftieth birthday, reflects on one hundred moments from a lifetime’s sensual adventures. After the love, hatred and despair is done with, the great and trivial acts of her bodily life reveal an imperfect, yet whole self.”

And from this I expected a catalogue of sorts, of sordid encounters with multiple lovers.

Interestingly, I got was something quite different.

What this novel delivers is a reminiscence of a life lived in the shadow of others and in the pallor of self doubt. It is an exploration of self-worth, held against the fond and fearful memories of romantic endeavour. Deborah, ‘the girl’, ‘the Suspicious Wanderer’ remembers her family – her first bittersweet relationships, her friends, her lovers – men and women, her son and her lost husband. Some of these relationships are fleeting, others life-long but all make their mark on who and how Deborah finds herself in her later years:

“Once, in London on New Year’s Eve, traffic prevented me from being at the party where I was supposed to be. At midnight I found myself alone in the back of the black cab, caught in a traffic jam.

We were stuck in Westminster, right beside Big Ben, when I heard the bells start up. Suddenly I wanted to hear them with my unwrapped ears, to hear time being counted out as we passed through it. I leant over and tapped on the screen separating me from the taxi driver.

‘Can you wind the window down, please, so I can hear the bells?’

‘It’s bloody freezing,’ he said, but lowered the windows so the thrilling air rushed in, bearing with it the complicated, pealing sound of time passing.

I turned my face up to the icy air, to the bells, to the gold of the clock tower lit up against the black winter night, and as midnight struck a beautiful strangers leant into the taxi and kissed me.”

As per the arrangements of the read-along, we read and discussed this book in three parts and I think that reading it that way worked really well. Stopping and discussing at each third made it a really interesting reading experience. For me I found the first third very raw and hyper-sexual, the second third as very sad, introspective and then this final third of the book I found incredibly poetic:

“How could I forget the poetry of the bath? The limbs collapsing, swimming, cupped warm and safe, the skin and nerves and fibres of the heart surrounded once again by comforting water, as warm as amniotic fluid.”

Overall I felt very sorry for Deborah, despite her comfortable, adventurous life. There was a real sadness in her story, in the tone of the narrative, and I found myself wishing that she could have cared for herself just a little more. Her sexual encounters so often involved her surrendering something of herself in a way that ultimately caused her harm of one type or another.

This novel takes a little getting used to and it’s not always pretty. It is sensual, but at time confronting. But, it is rewarding and poetic and resolves itself nicely. Its picture of Paris and its view of Australia from the outside looking in, is enticing and romantic.

I would recommend that you give this novel a go, give yourself a little time get a feel for the narrative and pacing, and I think you’ll really enjoy this moving and unique story.

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