Magazine article The Spectator

'The House of Fiction: Leonard, Susan and Elizabeth JolleyA Memoir', by Susan Swingler - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The House of Fiction: Leonard, Susan and Elizabeth JolleyA Memoir', by Susan Swingler - Review

Article excerpt

Credit: James McNamara

The House of Fiction: Leonard, Susan and Elizabeth JolleyA Memoir Susan Swingler

Scribe, pp.320, £9.99, ISBN: 9781922247292

There aren't many places you can get shouty about Proust without losing your job. The Lane Bookshop in Perth, Western Australia, is one of them. As an undergraduate, I'd pitch up there for work on Saturday mornings with as much song in the heart as a hangover allowed. Because for me the Lane wasn't just a shop, it was a salon. The young staff, all writers, were encouraged (and fed, when cash was scarce) by the kind owners. Debates sparked between the shelves. And great Australian novelists came in to buy the books.

The late Elizabeth Jolley was one of these. She must have been 80 when I last saw her, bird-thin with fiery eyes. Whenever she walked down the stairs, an awed hush descended. Elizabeth had written 14 novels, won the Miles Franklin, Australia's top literary award, and mentored Tim Winton, who won it twice. She was the real deal, the grande dame of Australian letters.

What I didn't realise at the time was that Elizabeth had fabricated the childhood letters of her English stepdaughter, Susan Swingler, to hide her own relationship with Leonard Jolley, Susan's father. But, according to Susan's memoir, The House of Fiction , this is exactly what she did.

When Susan was four, her father left her mother, Joyce, for Elizabeth and Australia. Joyce raised Susan as a single parent, working in schools to support them both. It was an isolated existence -- Joyce promised Leonard that she wouldn't speak to his family and was estranged from her own. Leonard sent occasional parcels from Australia but otherwise had nothing to do with his daughter. Her requests to see him were rebuffed, and ultimately he stopped responding altogether.

Leonard's new wife, Elizabeth, took over, sending warm letters to Susan from Perth, where they had moved for Leonard to become librarian of the University of Western Australia. (His portrait, slumped and baleful, still glares at students.)

So far, a quiet family tragedy with a literary flavour. But the story gets quirky when Susan meets Leonard's sister Laura, an aunt she never knew existed.

'When did you and Joyce come back to England?'

'What do you mean? Come back from where?'

'From Australia, of course.' ...

'I've never been to Australia. …

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