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Eros, Beauty, and Friction: What Happened When Susan Johnson Took Her 85-Year-Old Mother to a Greek Island


Have you ever dreamed of escaping your current life and spending weeks, months or even a year on an island in the Mediterranean? This is what Susan Johnson longed for and did, taking her mother to the Greek island of Kythira. Reading Johnson’s new memoir Aphrodite’s Breath while taking myself a month off to write near Naples was my second experience of living in a sort of synchronicity with Johnson.

Johnson is only a few years older than me; a writer, mother and divorcee who has always – from a distance we have yet to meet – always been way ahead of me in books, success and family. For a while we had the same literary agent and I heard of her latest publications and wished I too had the tenacity and perseverance to finish my own books with such (deceptive) ease.

Review: Aphrodite’s Breath – Susan Johnson (Allen & Unwin)

I had devoured her first memoirs, A better woman, upon its publication in 1999. I read this postpartum memoir after the reassuringly quiet birth of my own children; as if a birth can never be memorable and poignant, even if it is joyful. I, too, had experienced difficulties in my own marriage, which I didn’t tell anyone about, and was relieved and fascinated when I read Johnson’s poignant account of her first marriage.

A Better Woman has still not found its equivalent in Australian memoir writing. Poetic, intelligent, grueling, Johnson writes so well about the shock of the violence against her body from a childbirth gone horribly wrong, as she tried to finish manuscripts on time and maintain a sense of herself as a writer, woman, mother, wife and lover. It’s both memoir and philosophy, just like Aphrodite’s Breath. You could think of A Better Woman as the first part of Aphrodite’s Breath ‘secret history of women’.

Me and my writer and new mom friends were all talking about it then, and many of us will be talking about Aphrodite’s Breath now: as the daughters of aging parents, as the daughters of certain mothers, and as people who feel Johnson’s longing for one last flight to life lived with eros, filled with the breath of Aphrodite, before we are overtaken by our own old age, infirmities or retirement poverty.

Johnson’s memoir opens in Brisbane. Now that her second marriage has ended, her sons have grown up and are living abroad, the writer is tired of the demands of a full-time job. She had briefly lived on Kythera in her late teens with Australian and Greek friends, then fell in love with the place.

There are other storylines that tie her to the island. There are Kythirans in Australia she knows, and Australian Kythirans in Kythira, expats, migrants, children of migrants. She bravely quits her good job with retirement and vacation pay, gets a contract to write two books (2021 novel From where I felland this memoir) and, unwilling to leave her 85-year-old mother Barbara behind, encourages her to join her and be a part of the story.

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‘I can’t see anything… I recognize’

This is very much the story of Kythera, and of being a daughter, a sometimes unsatisfying daughter of a much loved but distant mother in many ways.

Even here I recognized something of my own relationship with my mother (is it generational?), a woman like Barbara, born in the 1930s. They don’t feel like they have to like us, their daughters. Not that Barbara hates her daughter Susan; they finally leave Brisbane to live together on Kythira for a year.

Mother and daughter.
Effy Alexakis

But it’s one of the many truths Johnson discovers on Kythera that while her mother always defends her as a writer, she doesn’t always admire her as a person.

Barbara is fully aware that she will be one of the memoir’s storylines. But frustratingly for Johnson, she doesn’t embrace life in Kythira, or does so unpredictably. They arrive in winter with poor heating and an “incessant howling wind” that Barbara, a thoroughly Queenslander, understandably finds unbearable. After a while, Johnson finds a new house for them to live in: warmer, nicer, and with neighbors who become good friends.

She tries in so many ways to put Barbara at ease.

If I gave the impression that I was concerned for her well-being because she was of the timid, pleasant kind, let me correct that.

Barbara often refuses to go for walks with Johnson or enter churches to view icons and other “sinful acts of idolatry”, or to join her on other adventures around the island. She is not interested in hearing from her daughter about the ancient or recent history of the island, its place in the great myths and legends. Often (but not reliably) she is wary and even resentful of their visitors and new friends, Kytheran and Australian. (Johnson doesn’t tell her about a hilarious affair with a silly Frenchman.)

Barbara often sees strangeness where Johnson sees the wonderful. Barbara says of the night sky: “I can’t see anything (…) I recognize it”.

Johnson begins to wonder if resistance is her mother’s intent:

Could it be that Mom gave me nothing to write about? ‘My mom went to Greece and watched Netflix’ was a title that probably wasn’t coming off the shelves anytime soon.

Johnson cannot ignore the friction between them. They argue, there are silences, but then things shift again. Spring begins, with “wild yellow crocuses streaming over the hills like sunshine”. Nevertheless, they make the decision that Barbara will return to Australia sooner and Johnson will continue alone.

Barbara’s reaction to the island is at odds with Johnson’s. Ultimately, she acts as an important counterpart to the author’s quest; the seeker in the story must encounter obstacles of mythical proportions, and that is Barbara. Barbara resists the very idea of ​​travel as a celebration of mobility, or as a rite of passage, or of the self’s ability to colonize and reinvent itself in the new place. She doesn’t want to recreate herself.

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A new sadness

The book has many rooms, many beating hearts. There is the story of a writer hard at work researching, taking notes, editing, writing; that is, earn a living. And through it all, the warm big heart of the island itself.

The early chapters are in places full of historical details, which are difficult to understand unless one is familiar with Kythira (which I am not). There is also the tragic story of Rosa Kasimati, the mother of a famous Kythira, Lafcadio Hearn, who was separated from him when he was a young child. Johnson wants to give Kasimati a key place in the memoir, but Kasimati and Hearn both remain peripheral.

Eros Beauty and Friction What Happened When Susan Johnson Took.0&q=45&auto=format&w=237&fit=clip

Once the memoir gets into its rhythm, the island shimmers beneath Johnson’s prose. Johnson lives there through all the seasons, through deftly shared tales of new friendships and olive harvesting, of feasts and meals, of watching the fishing boats and ferries, of walks between villages, of dancing “in the hidden cool of the springs and being part of “a long line of dancers stretching to the limits of knowable time”.

The memoir does not end on Kythira. Like other Kytheran Australians and expatriates, Johnson is returning to Australia during the pandemic. The frequent flashes of humor are forgotten. Soon there is a new sadness of facing Barbara’s death, and the recognition that now, away from Kythera, Johnson “could not comprehend the passage of time, or that a human life had an end”.

Johnson herself falls seriously ill, and the gift of their shared time on Kythira is that she now understands “the sheer density of being – of the physical world and our bodies moving through it (…) of the song of the world which is recited by common people.”

Reading this, I paused, thinking of my own elderly parents, reminded of the beauty and terror of our shared mortality. Aphrodite’s Breath is one of those sublime books that both pleases and haunts you with its images and thoughts long after you’ve put the book down.

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