House of Fiction (Australian Edition)
Susan Swingler is the step-daughter of one of Australia’s most revered writers, Elizabeth Jolley. Abandoned by her father, Leonard, at the age of four, Susan had no contact with the Jolley family until they found and reclaimed her at the age of twenty-one. Why they were kept apart is the subject of this startling new memoir. The ‘House of Fiction’ tells the story of Swingler’s quest to find her father. As she painstakingly traces and documents clues to a better understanding of Leonard, she inadvertently unravels an intricate fiction created by Elizabeth Jolley to protect those she loves.
Publisher’s Note from the first Australian edition:
… to the outside world the unhappiness and the problems may not show at all …
– Elizabeth Jolley, ‘The Changing Family – Who Cares?’
When Susan Swingler submitted her manuscript to Fremantle Press early in the summer of 2011, I received it with some wariness. The House of Fiction, I understood, was the memoir of a daughter’s quest for her absent father. Moreover, it constituted a revelation of the extraordinary actions of one of Australia’s finest writers.
In 1976, Elizabeth Jolley’s collection of stories Five Acre Virgin was one of the first five titles published by the newly established Fremantle Arts Centre Press. The Press went on to support and take great pride in the burgeoning career of Elizabeth Jolley and to publish seven of her titles, the last being Diary of a Weekend Farmer in 1993. Elizabeth Jolley’s writing is rightly revered for its black humour, its portrayals of characters on the edge of society, and its delicate consideration of the question of love in many forms. Above all I did not want Fremantle Press to be associated with a book that in any way denigrated Elizabeth Jolley or her work – and in reading Susan’s memoir I did not find it.
Instead, I found a story written with acuity and empathy. From each of the women – one in the immediacy of this memoir, and one across a lifetime of writing fiction – it is possible to see how the practice of writing might be a way of giving shape to, and garnering strength for, those difficult aspects of life that require survival or resolution.
The circumstances of this story evolved in an epoch when distance was untroubled by affordable phone calls or air travel, by email or Skype. It came about in an era before text, Twitter and Facebook, a time when there was a significant distinction between public and private selves.
In these pages we see two women living in the tension caused on the one hand by the longing of the daughter, and on the other by the insistence of the stepmother on the fiction of happy families – even as her husband resists a story he would prefer to have abandoned.
Here for the reader to discover is the way that each writer has written in very different ways about their shared, and singular, experiences. Here is a story that allows the reader to consider the relationship between life and fiction, and to make connections – or perhaps even apply literal truths – to what formerly might have been perceived as fiction.
Susan Swingler is by profession a researcher and curator. This memoir has been compiled with sensitivity and a remarkable emotional balance. I hope you will find, as I did, that Susan Swingler’s revelations add intriguing layers of complexity to the oeuvre of Elizabeth Jolley and its reception to date.
– Georgia Richter, Fremantle Press