Book review: The Fragments by Toni Jordan

Friday, March 22, 2019 Permalink

I fell in love with Toni Jordan’s Addition, published in 2008. The Fragments is Jordan’s fifth book. I missed it when it was released in Australia last year but managed to get an electronic copy and… let’s just say I was (again) smitten.

Book review: The Fragments by Toni JordanThe Fragments
by Toni Jordan
Published by Text Publishing
on September 10th 2019
Source: NetGalley
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 1925773132, 9781925773132
Pages: 336

INGA Karlson died in a fire in New York in the 1930s, leaving behind three things: a phenomenally successful first novel, the scorched fragments of a second book— and a mystery that has captivated generations of readers.

Nearly fifty years later, Brisbane bookseller Caddie Walker is waiting in line to see a Karlson exhibition featuring the famous fragments when she meets a charismatic older woman.

The woman, Rachel, quotes a phrase from the Karlson fragments that Caddie knows does not exist—and yet to Caddie, who knows Inga Karlson’s work like she knows her name, it feels genuine.

Caddie is electrified. Jolted her from her sleepy, no-worries life in torpid 1980s Brisbane, she is driven to investigate: to find the clues that will unlock the greatest literary mystery of the twentieth century

There was something beguilingly irreverent about Jordan’s prose in Addition: casual commentary offered up with sass and hilarity because our lead Grace struggled with mental illness and obsessive compulsive disorder. The words and thoughts were Grace’s so it was hard to separate the character from the writing.

This book was different. I liked Caddie, our lead character, but was probably more in awe of the writing in general than of the way it portrays the two or three women at its core.

Of course it IS a book about writing. A book about a book, so it’s only natural there should be a focus on the value of the written word and its ability to touch us, and to change and impact lives.

Although having said that, I must confess I pondered a little on Caddie’s obsession with Inga Karlson and her first and only printed book All Has An End, published in 1935. I can’t imagine being that impressed by someone or something that it changed my life, even if it did win the Pulitzer Prize.

Of course I’ve seen Jordan reference To Kill A Mockingbird and Harper Lee in an interview and guess that book (though probably not her follow-up… albeit Lee’s ‘first’ book) inspires and affects many.

So I guess others feel long-lasting passions or connections I don’t; either way,  we soon learn the book reminds Caddie of her childhood and her father.

Caddie can see the fragments, and seeing them makes her long for her father in a way she hasn’t for years, an ache that spreads up her side and finishes behind her sternum, which is a bone she knows to be smooth in other people’s chests but imagines laced with steely holes like a box grater in her own. p 9

The book unfolds in two timeframes.

In the mid 1980s bookseller and lover of literature Caddie meets Rachel, who seems to know more than she should about Inga and the manuscript that perished along with its author (and publisher). Caddie’s intrigued by something Rachel says so keen to find out more about the fire in which Inga lost her life; and how on earth an older woman living in Brisbane can know things she shouldn’t half a decade later.

And we flash back and forth to Rachel’s life, meeting her in 1928 when she’s just 10 and being uprooted with her family from their farm and moving to the city. Jordan then drops us into moments of Rachel’s life as she struggles to overcome a violent upbringing and poverty.

There’s romance for both women, with Rachel getting swept off her feet in the 1930s and Caddie teaming up with two very different men, both eager to learn more about Inga, the mystery of her death and the missing manuscript.

We get a sense of what Inga’s long lost manuscript is about…

When she began, she felt the weight of how she should react. Now that she’s finished, the air has a different texture. Her heart feels different. She doesn’t have to analyse her own response. She can’t. She’s in the thick of Inga’s story, feeling the world she has made, and it is a fragile thing and everyone is connected and there is space in her heart for everyone, even people who do terrible things and must be opposed. p 250

For me this was a timely reminder as I read it in the week a terrorist killed 50 worshippers in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Inga’s novel was ready to be published in February 1939, on the cusp of World War II, though she wasn’t to know that at the time.

People seem to think its all flag-waving and nicely pressed uniforms and a little playful thuggery. But these people really believe there are whole categories of humans who don’t deserve to exist. p 252

On a lighter note, I enjoyed the reminders of mid 1980s Brisbane, as I was there around this time – at University (where, like Caddie, I felt like a fraud… like I didn’t belong) – just before World Expo 88. The big country town was on the cusp of change. And I was reminded perhaps, for a while, it got worse before it got better!

Buildings are vanishing, replaced by car parks and deep pits and phallic towers covered in reflecting glass. They make the city even hotter and Brisbanites soon learn to lower their eyes. p 47

There are a few interesting twists to this tale. It’s often described as a mystery but I’m not sure it’s that. It’s more a literary version of books similar to those written by Kate Morton and Natasha Lester. And I don’t mean to imply they’re ‘lesser’ in any way, rather their focus is more on the story itself. Here (for me anyway) I kept getting swept away by Jordan’s poetic words and mesmerising phrasing. (Which is perhaps apt in a book about writing!)

The fragment is sleeping inside its glass case as if it were a piece of Inga herself, suspended and waxen, waiting to be woken by – whom? By Caddie? Why not? Caddie understands waiting. p 16

It’s books like these that make me realise perhaps I’ll never finish any of my half-written or barely-started novels and perhaps I don’t deserve to because I just can’t string words together as perfectly as some. Not only would the plot of my novels be eye-roll worthy or tedious but they’d be clumsily written or my prose overly obvious, as if I’m trying too hard.

For others, like Jordan, it seems to come so easily.

The Fragments by Toni Jordan was released by Text Publishing in Australia in late October 2018.

I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


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