Every now and then a book comes along that's brilliantly conceived and tightly written, yet there's nothing flashy about it. I think Australian writer Toni Jordan's third novel, Nine Days (Text, $37), falls into that rare and wonderful category.
Its story was inspired by a wartime newspaper photograph that Jordan kept pinned above her desk until the characters came to her. The picture, used on the cover of the book, was taken on a crowded platform at Melbourne railway station and shows a young woman hoisted up on people's shoulders so she can kiss her soldier sweetheart goodbye.
The plot Jordan constructs around this image tells the story of three generations of a working-class Melbourne family. She structures it by taking nine people and writing of one significant day in each of their lives, hence the title.
Nine Days opens in 1939 with Australia on the verge of war and young Kip Westaway forced to leave school to help support the family following the death of his drunken father. Full of vim despite his situation, it is this likeable character who remains at the heart of the book.
The novel reaches the present day but the chapters skip backwards and forwards between the generations so it's up to the reader to an extent to piece together the story and work out the connections between each person.
Chapter by chapter we meet Stanzi, the troubled counsellor, Charlotte, the flaky yoga teacher, moody teenager Alec, lovely Connie, sly Francis, long-suffering Jean and neighbours Jack and Annabel, who are important to them in different ways. Each of the nine voices is distinct and brimming with personality and by the finish every part of the jigsaw fits perfectly and you see the whole sweep of this romantic, thoughtful, heartbreaking story.
Somehow, Jordan achieves the feat of being both satirical of and compassionate to her characters. It is as if she is writing about blood relatives she cares for despite their flaws. There is a message here: life is fragile; those we love can be gone in an instant; hold on tight to them while you can, she is telling us.
Jordan's previous novels, Addition and Fall Girl, were smart, sassy and humorous. Nine Days has taken her to another level. More serious than her previous work but with the same astute observations, brightness and wit, it's a sensitive and beautiful novel, a slice of Australia's working-class history, that is a joy to read.
There remains a mystery surrounding the people in the photograph that so inspired the author. It was found in the archives of The Argus newspaper and so far the couple haven't been identified. While it would be interesting to discover the truth, Jordan's fiction feels honest and real enough to stand in its stead in the meantime.