Author Toni Jordan is renowned for giving us stories that are literary and well-researched whilst still being accessible and a joy to read. Her latest novel The Fragments (Text Publishing 2018) is no exception, and it is yet another example of her ability to move fluidly between genres, with each of her five published novels different enough to keep us on our toes but with the same high standard of writing.
The Fragments is a literary mystery wrapped up in a story of identity and self-esteem, ambition and greed, wound loosely with tendrils of friendship, passion and desire that grow quietly as the story develops, with the reader always hoping and anticipating that love will flower. The story is told in alternate chapters moving between 1938 New York and 1986 Brisbane, from the perspectives of Rachel Lehrer, a young woman who escapes a violent household in the 30’s seeking a better life, and Caddie Walker, a young bookseller in the 80’s who has almost put her life on hold as she waits for something to happen. The two are linked by a third woman, Inga Karlson, the beautiful, reclusive and talented writer, author of the famous book All Has an End, known the world over. Inga Karlson died in a tragic warehouse fire in 1939, along with her publisher, Charles, and all the copies and printer’s plates of her yet-to-be released second novel. All that remains are seven burnt fragments, preciously preserved and currently on tour at the Brisbane art gallery, along with photos, correspondence and other material about Karlson. The novel opens as Caddie attends the exhibition and has a chance encounter with a stranger who appears to know something more about the fragments than is possible. Disconcerted, Caddie begins to investigate the small clue, and discovers more than she could have ever imagined.
Both the main characters in this novel, Rachel and Caddie, are engaging, empathetic and appealing. Despite living decades apart, as young women they both suffer from a similar crisis of confidence, a yearning for something more than their lot in life. And we find ourselves willing both women the strength to escape from the negative influences in their lives, and for their full potential to bloom. The male characters are no less important, including one endearing bloke who we hope will blossom and shine, and one particularly unpleasant chap who we hope might come to a nasty end. There are darker themes, too, running in a subterraneous way through the narrative, reflective of the post-war sentiment of the 30’s, and the political and social fears of the time. Toni Jordan once again demonstrates her ability to manoeuvre her readers from historical settings to more recent times, seamlessly developing characters that have more in common than their years apart would suggest. We are just as invested in each of the simultaneous narratives, and she has a special skill in pacing and tension – every chapter, particularly in the second half of the book, finishes on a cliff hanger, so that each alternate chapter we are desperate to find out what happens. In addition to all the sub-plots in the book that gradually develop, uncovering aspects of both Rachel’s and Caddie’s lives, the book finishes with a twist that is completely unexpected and surprising, but which is yet satisfying and entirely makes sense.
And of course, The Fragments is chock full of Toni Jordan’s quick wit and dry humour, delivered by her characters in believable dialogue, and those who know Brisbane will recognise and delight in her authentic descriptions of a Queensland summer: the sounds and smells, the heat and humidity, the wildlife and the parochialisms.
The book opens with the line: ‘When Caddie Walker thinks back to this morning, she will try to remember everything. She will lie in bed and sift the moments for a clue.’ And indeed, this is what readers will do once they reach the end of this story – they will return to the beginning and search for all the hidden clues that now make perfect sense.
The Fragments would make a great last-minute Christmas gift for almost anybody – it’s a story with broad appeal, and a mystery with a deeper message about sacrifice and betrayal that many will appreciate.