Susan Johnson has written eight novels, a memoir and a nonfiction work. Her latest effort is a contemporary version of the epistolary book once popular in the 18th century. From Where I Fell is a narrative conducted entirely through online conversations as these strangers inadvertently connect and fall into friendship “mid-air”.
When 51-year-old Sydney-based Pamela Robinson emails her ex-husband in Paris, she mistakenly uses the wrong address and her message is sent to upstate New Yorker and sexagenarian Chris(anthi) Woods instead. What follows is a year-long correspondence between the two women on opposite sides of the planet – as a pearly summer dawn breaks at one end, the other faces a winter sky melting to black.
The distinct voices and personalities of Pamela and Chris are beautifully rendered; the former, effusive and overwrought, is still guilt-stricken after breaking up with her husband of 20 years, effectively leaving her three sons fatherless.
“The muscles of our lives moved together and ripping ourselves apart has left me motionless,” she confesses to the more taciturn, more pragmatic and emoji-free Chris, who believes silence itself can be a form of speech. The generous and forever put-upon American has her own problems to contend with: her manipulative neighbour and her fractious, ungrateful mother, as well as a couple of traumatised Syrian refugees with whom she volunteers her time.
Despite – or maybe because of – their temperamental differences, the two correspondents start addressing each other as “Plato” and “Socrates”, the fond nicknames a nod to their quasi-moral and philosophical excursions into the eternal chaos of life. Their discussions include marriage, motherhood, teenage rebellion, sibling rivalry, ageing, self-sacrifice and self-interest. These virtual conversations act as a pressure valve to release pent-up daily frustrations garnered from providing duty of care to a motley crew of dependents.
From Where I Fell offers readers a salient reminder that we’re all a heartbeat away from accident, disease, divorce and death. The reader is privy to the dramas of Johnson’s protagonists, following the wobbly trajectories of their lives as they exchange emails like “flares of light”. Written with poetry, humour and wit, these dispatches are deeply affecting vignettes. As Pamela realises at one epiphanic moment, we all have to “learn to walk towards into … coming moments, lit or shrouded”.
Allen & Unwin, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 10, 2021 as "Susan Johnson, From Where I Fell".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription