Memoir is a slippery beast, one person writing their own truth not only about themselves but about other significant, real people in their life. Rarely have I read a memoir that is as brutally self-reflective, as honestly interrogative, as beautifully written, and as raw and vulnerable as Susan Johnson’s masterpiece Aphrodite’s Breath (Allen and Unwin 2023).

This is the tale of a mother and daughter’s Greek island adventure. The mother, Barbara Johnson, is in her mid 80’s and decides, almost on a whim, to accompany her daughter, Susan Johnson, just 60, to the Greek island of Kythera, where Susan planned to live for a year, finish her novel, and document the whole experience to then write this memoir.

Before they left, after months of planning, financial bean-counting, negotiations for the rentals of a house and a car and a smart TV, one of Susan’s ex-partners remarked: ‘Doesn’t that sound like fun. Mama Mia meets Apocalypse Now.’ Turns out, they were rather prescient.

It all sounded like such a good idea at the time. Rent a house on an island Susan had loved as a younger traveller, a small island full of beauty and friendly locals, eat great food, swim in the pristine waters, re-connect as mother and daughter. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it turns out, and the result is as funny and at times laugh-out-loud hysterically Kafkaesque as it is moving, warm and loving. A once-in-a-lifetime experience that profoundly shifts the dynamic between these two feisty women, opening old wounds and rekindling sharp family barbs, but also bringing them closer than perhaps they had ever been, living together, sharing everything day by day, learning to live in a new place together, and discovering parts of themselves previously hidden or unshared.

This book is about mothers and daughters (and oh! the many permutations and complications of those relationships!); it’s about love, respect, devotion, compromise, home, belonging, adventure, olives, cats, Greek people, Greek food, Greek men, the natural world, ex-pats, writing, weather, festivals, saints, churches, loyalty and discovery.

Susan Johnson holds a mirror to her face and describes with harsh and detailed judgement what she sees – not only her physical being, but the sometimes uncomfortable truths of her personality, her desires, her selfishness, her adoration, her irritability, her sacrifice and her commitment. With a forensic eye, she also studies the people around her – most notably, her own mother, Barbara – with a sensitive steadfastness combined with a critical reality check.

The result is a memoir that is beautiful because it is raw, gritty, self-deprecating, honest, brave, curious and inquisitive, and because it is willing to go further than most; Susan asks questions of herself (and others, but mostly herself) that many people would find hard to ask and sometimes impossible to answer. She is her own harshest critic, which makes for an extraordinary story.

But that truthfulness is not the only reason for this book’s beauty. Susan Johnson is one of Australia’s most accomplished and seasoned writers, both as a journalist and an author. In Aphrodite’s Breath, her writing skills are on full display, with prose that is poetic, lyrical, wondrous and beguiling. Her descriptions of Kythera are as of her spiritual home – every blossom, every ruin, every church, every pebbly beach, every tree in every orchard, every new friend made, every kindness, every silly misunderstanding and trivial annoyance, all combine to fully engage the reader’s senses so that we feel we too have lived and breathed on Kythera; we too feel its siren song. Her depiction of nature, her characterisations of people, her feel for the land and its ancient culture and history, and her intimate portrayal of life, her life, and the life of her mother, and the life they share, come together in illuminating grace.

This memoir is a joy to read. It’s funny and sad, heartfelt and warm, relatable and revealing. Reading it is as if you are sitting with the author in a sunny corner, with a glass of wine or a cup of strong coffee, hearing the tales spill forth in her own voice. She includes the reader in the story, pulls us in until we are tight in the grip of Kythera fever.

This book is also a love song to her mother, who so bravely (some would say stupidly?) accompanied her on this journey. How many 80-year-olds have the courage and wit and flexibility and sense of adventure to not only join their daughter on her ridiculous travels, but to do so on their own terms, sticking rigidly to some routines, and at other times brazenly agreeing to flagrantly disregard the rules?

Despite the difficulties and heartbreak along the way, this journey – and this book – is a gift. A gift from Susan to Barbara, a gift from Susan to the reader, and a gift of truly great and inspirational writing that will be passed from hand to hand, from friend to friend, mother to daughter, granddaughter to mother.

I learnt so much about Greek history and culture and loved the way Susan incorporated Greek (with translations) throughout the story. I saw so much truth and beauty in the mother / daughter relationship. I did not want this story to end.

But end it must, of course, as do all stories. How it ends, the unique and particular beauty of that closure, you must discover for yourself.

Two quotes spoke to me from towards the conclusion of this book: ‘I have always known that I have been blessed throughout my very happy life’ and ‘…when I am gone I want these words to record that I was a wanderer in many lands whose home was love’.

But who said which quote, the mother or the daughter? I will leave it to you, dear reader, to find out.