Who were the greatest loves of your life? The ones that awakened every sense? The ones that you still dream about from time to time, fantasise about? The ones that you could encounter after years of absence and still get a tingle in the pit of your stomach? Did you appreciate that distinct buzz of a special love at the time you had it in your life, or is the memory perhaps sweeter than the reality?
Deborah is nearing her 50th birthday. She is processing her past and her future from this vantage point on the other side of mid-life. She is haunted by the numbness of experience she observed in the final years of her mother’s and grandmother’s lives – their loss of memory, but also their loss of physical sensations. She notes that along with the ageing of the mind comes the ageing of the senses: our palate may crave a simpler diet, fabric is harsher against sensitive skin, our eyes and ears can no longer offer a sharp snapshot of our environment. She is determined to reflect on her life as a journey of feelings, not just as a series of events. “Tick-tock, tick-tock, the body remembers” – the touching, the tasting, the hearing, the seeing, the smelling of 50 years of womanhood.
Deborah declares herself to have had a very ordinary life. This is not a novel in which exceptional adventures take place, but the story of the kind of imperfect, clumsy life experienced by many, in which families can be difficult, relationships don’t run smoothly and mistakes are made. Deborah unpacks the raw relationships between mothers and daughters, between siblings, between partners: life can be a hard slog, people can be frustrating and cruel, and desire in confusing. And yet, within the dullest or most arduous of days, it is possible to experience great passion. Consider, for example, the perfect coffee, or a piece of music that makes your heart sing. Or the firm, energising massage your hairdresser gives while chatting about her weekend. Can you recall the feeling of the air in your favourite foreign city? The thrilling snap of cold, or the overwhelming sag of humidity as you first step out of an airport? If you smoke (and probably moreso if you, like me, used to smoke) there’s the hot rush of the first inhalation of a long-anticipated cigarette – something illicit and taboo, yet something you long for, that calms you and completes you in the moment: what better way to describe a lover? Johnson suggests that these seemingly mundane moments – these ‘lovers’ of a different kind – are as character-forming and worthy of appreciation as the more obvious sensory experiences we tend to include in a life story, like holding a newborn baby, or the pain of injury or our sexual encounters.
My Hundred Lovers gives us an intimate portrait of one character through the detailed illustration of the most influential sensory experiences of her life. It is blunt and unapologetic in its discussion of the unloveliness of the human body and the awkwardness of self-discovery. It is a poetic and literary novel that deftly expresses the fundamental human fear of the inevitable end of life and reminds us to appreciate every taste, every sound, lest one day we are no longer able to enjoy them. “Every day unique in its details, already passing, vanishing, like breath”.
I found this book deeply moving. It cuts to the core of what it means to be a human being. If we take away all the nonsense of the ‘stuff’ in our lives and consider the way we experience through our senses, it is like looking through the eyes of a child – uncluttered and quietly observing the “great and trivial acts” of a bodily life.
My Hundred Lovers is published by Allen and Unwin.
This review will also be listed as part of the 2012 Australian Women Writers reading challenge.