Book review: Nine Days by Toni Jordan

In the wake of two sassy, contemporary novels, Aussie author Toni Jordan moves up a gear in a cross-generational story which opens in Melbourne in 1939 as the world teeters on the edge of war.

Her romantic comedies Addition and Fall Girl won much acclaim but Nine Days, an ambitious, multi-layered saga featuring one family, nine narrative voices and a critical day in each of their lives, takes Jordan’s beautifully spare, descriptive writing to a new level.

It was inspired by a single photograph, seen here on the book cover, of an unidentified couple whose picture is included in the State Library of Victoria’s Argus newspaper collection.

From their emotional, evocative farewell, Jordan has woven a complex story of a tragedy and the ripples that spread out from it for over 70 years. Packed with recurring themes and motifs, clever structural connections, disparate but linked characters and with a moving and compelling story at its heart, this is a book that teases, impresses and entertains.

It’s 1939 and deep in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Richmond, 15-year-old Kip Westaway, failed scholar and stable hand, is about to live through the most important day in his young life.

A lively, witty lad, Kip is keenly aware that his family’s fortunes have seriously changed since his drunken father fell from a tram. His mother Jean is struggling to make ends meet, twin brother Francis is proving to be an academic and older sister Connie is trying desperately to map out her future.

Connie is destined to cross paths with next door neighbour Jack Husting, a young man recently returned to Australia with his parents, but war is only a heartbeat away and what happens during the next 24 hours is the catalyst for momentous events strung across eight more moments in time – love and deception, near-misses and misunderstandings.

The repercussions of that day on the cusp of conflict will affect the lives of the Westwood family, even those not yet born, including another pair of twins who will help us to piece together the past.

Spiky characters, staccato sentences and Jordan’s sharp observations on the minutae of ordinary people and their ordinary lives transform Nine Days from a standard war novel to a work of distinct and delicate precision.

War, abortion, religion, class and age-old tensions between duty and desire all have parts to play but love in all its many forms is the star role and the glue that binds together both the Westwood family and this warm, wise and inspirational story.

One wonders where Jordan will go next...

(Sceptre, hardback, £16.99)