18 March 2007

Book Review: Johnno by David Malouf

New Year’s Reading Resolution #4

Johnno Sorting through his late father’s possessions, the narrator known only as ‘Dante’ finds one of his old school yearbooks. Leafing through its pages, his discovers a forgotten photograph that triggers his recollections of his old acquaintance, Johnno. The resulting trip down memory lane spans some twenty years, starting in wartime Brisbane and continuing to 1960s Europe before returning home to Queensland. It’s an ideal choice for my Resolution reading, as Malouf is frequently held up as one of the greats of Australian literature, but I’ve never felt inclined to read his books; though I have been at least slightly curious about Johnno since the One Book One Brisbane scandal of 2004. (This was technically the runner-up, but the public vote was overruled ... possibly because the public voted for chick lit.)

I knew this review would be difficult when I was over halfway through and still had no idea what to say. It’s much more about character than events, so no point commenting on the plot. As for the characters themselves ... didn’t dislike them, but didn’t like them much either. Johnno I can best describe as chaotic; life in his presence would never be dull (whatever else it might be). Dante I felt wasn’t so much a character as a means of viewing Johnno’s antics; he was known only by a nickname, and that only after several chapters of namelessness. And being an Australian writer of Turkish extraction, I wondered if he wasn’t based on the author. My main memory of the first 3/4 of the book is frustration at not being able to place the historical locations relative to modern ones. Things like the long-vanished tram line; all I got from the book was that it went somewhere near George Street. I also spent 200 pages wondering whether the Gardens repeatedly referred to actually were the present-day City Botanic Gardens (they were). If I didn’t know Brisbane I could have let my imagination picture whatever it liked, but instead it automatically tried to compare past and present.

Once the scene shifted to Europe the reading got easier, and the final chapters when the mystery surrounding Johnno was revealed, it even became entertaining. But the thought-provoking end failed to compensate for the slow and geographically confusing first half. It probably is a fine example of Australian literature if I could only appreciate it; and I’m at a loss to explain exactly what it was I didn’t like. I guess it just didn’t agree with me.

Rating: C

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776