Review: My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson

There’s no comedy relief from me today since I’m all moody and reflective after reading Susan Johnson’s beautiful novel My Hundred Lovers.  Here are my thoughts…

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.

13 comments for “Review: My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson

  1. Pingback: On the BWF 2012 |
  2. rosebudpress1
    June 19, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    What a wonderful review Lara, I love the sound of this book! I will be popping this one on my list of books to read. I am currently reading ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver which is quite a confronting read. My girlfriend’s and I have our own book club and this was the latest, maybe when it is my turn to suggest the book of the month I will go for My Hundred Lovers! I will let you know how it goes! Rosie

    • June 19, 2012 at 3:25 pm

      Please do! We need to talk about Kevin is on my endless ‘to read’ list too. Have you seen the film? Thanks for dropping by the blog 🙂

      • rosebudpress1
        June 19, 2012 at 3:38 pm

        No I haven’t seen the film yet Lara! I will go and see it as soon as I finish the novel, although I always seem to find that watching the film after reading the book is a little bit of a let down, because you imagine all of the characters in your mind and so whatever you see in the film is always going to be different! A typical scenario of this was my second to last book, One Day by David Nicholls. Absolutely adored the book but the film was disappointing! (Mainly becuase I didn’t like Jim Sturgess who played one of the main characters-Dex, he was so much more handsome in my imagination!) Crossing my fingers We need to talk about Kevin will be a good film 🙂 Can’t wait to read more on your blog

  3. Emma
    June 5, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    Great review Lara, you really have the knack for writing!

  4. Tanya Gill
    June 3, 2012 at 9:04 am

    Sounds intriguing, Lara. I’ve just joined a book club (woo hoo! Only been hoping to join one for years and have never found one.) So am about to read ‘The Gargoyle’ by Andrew Davidson. This is the book the group just read and by all accounts it sounds pretty good. The next book is ‘The Book Thief’ which I have read. That’s great cos it gives me the opportunity to catch up. It’s really starting to feel like all the ‘pages’ in my life are falling into place!

    • June 4, 2012 at 9:45 pm

      I’ve been finding reading is a bit like exercise this past year – I have to force myself to put time aside for it, but I feel so much better when I do it. That was part of my reason for starting the blog – it’s my virtual book club! Book clubs are such a great way of sharing your love of reading – glad you found one you enjoy.

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