Toni Jordan’s latest novel, The Fragments, draws together two women living about 50 years apart: Caddie, an avid reader and bookseller, in Joh Bjelke-Petersen-era Brisbane; and Rachel, a Pennsylvania farmgirl, who runs away from a silk factory and poverty to reinvent herself in 1930s New York. What links them is a world-renowned writer, Inga Karlson, and her first novel, All Has an End.
Inga Karlson, in the vein of Harper Lee, writes a bestselling book loved by everyone, except Nazi sympathisers. But it is the second novel that embeds her in global history. A fire in a warehouse destroys all existing copies of the manuscript – and kills Inga and her editor – except for fragments from seven pages. The tease of the missing pages leads Caddie to the opening scene of Jordan’s novel, an exhibition of the fragments behind glass at a gallery in Brisbane, at a time exemplified by graffiti that reads: 95% OF ARTISTS LEAVE BRISBANE. WHY DON’T YOU?
Jordan’s novel, structured by the alternating voices of Caddie and Rachel, is an unusual literary thriller, built around complex twists and a great sense of anticipation, capturing a kind of naivety from those amateur sleuthing days of popular ’80s series such as Nancy Drew Mystery Stories. But it’s also as much about the process of writing and the world of the imagination: ideas for sale, who owns them – especially in academia – and how they are shaped by commodification and globalism. Caddie “feels disloyal to be reading another novel while waiting to see the fragments, as though the ghost of Inga Karlson will find her wanting”.
A risk with alternating chapters is that one character will propel the narrative more, and at times I found myself wanting to skip ahead to Rachel, especially her childhood, lured by Jordan’s mastery of detail, the way she sees everyday things in new ways – the “miniature ear of corn … wrapped in its papery skin” – and her skill in translating historical research into imagery. When applying for a job in a silk factory, Rachel’s boss inspects her hands, “shoves his knuckles in the tender space where her fingers join without once taking his eyes from hers”.
Exploring truth and historicity, The Fragments is a clever novel. Jordan’s fiction examines the overlooked roles of women, whose work often forms the thread that binds stories from the past, and the public’s hunger for what goes missing in the narrative gaps. DD
Text, 336pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 27, 2018 as "Toni Jordan, The Fragments ". Subscribe here.