Review: The Fragments by Toni Jordan, by Jemimah Halbert Brewster

The Fragments by Toni Jordan is a brilliant novel incorporating themes of coming of age, taking charge of one’s destiny, and learning to love again, all centred around a fictional historical literary mystery. The fragments are seven charred pieces of text, representing the only surviving remains of a much-anticipated second novel from celebrated novelist Inga Karlson, an Austrian-born American author whose debut work, All Has an End, shot her to literary fame in the 1930s. A mysterious fire claimed every copy of her second novel, as well as Inga herself and her publisher, Charles Cleborn, and the world has been obsessed with the missing novel, and what really happened to cause the fire, ever since.

In 1980s Brisbane, Caddie Walker is treading water with her life, working in a bookstore and not doing much else, despite being on track to a bright career in academia only a few years earlier. She attends an exhibition of the fragments where she meets a mysterious person who seems to know more about them than anyone alive should, and suddenly Caddie finds purpose and direction like she hasn’t known since her father died and her academic career vanished following a rancid love-affair. She pursues the lead she thinks was presented by the stranger, and before long has revived interests and relationships that she thought she’d long laid to rest. But where will it all lead? And should the mystery of Inga and her work be brought out into the light?

The novel alternates chapters between Caddie in 1980s Brisbane and Rachel, an acquaintance of Inga’s, in 1930s New York. Chapter by chapter we follow Caddie as she seeks lead upon lead, rediscovering her passion for research and literature – and possibly a professor who had long ago burned her. Alongside Caddie’s search for the truth we follow the story of Rachel, whose family is surviving the Depression however they can, until she breaks away from them and goes to New York, where she meets her unexpectedly glittering future.

The pacing of the chapters keeps the reader on a cliff hanger of wanting to know more, but this is not your typical mystery thriller. At the heart of the story is the decades-old literary mystery, which Jordan weaves so brilliantly into real-world events of the US in the 1930s – World War II looming, the growing Nazi movement, plus mentions of Roosevelt, isolationism and prohibition – that I had the urge to research Inga Karlson more than once, even though she is definitely a fictional figure.

Jordan’s vivid descriptions of 1930s New York and 1980s Brisbane are sensory and visceral; I felt like I was standing there with the characters, in the middle of lush, pulsing summer nights in Australian suburbia, or surrounded by grey slush, newspapers, and rugged-up New Yorkers, rushing around and worrying that the US will get involved in a European war. The settings are brilliant, and Jordan’s rendering of the two places – about as far apart as two places can be – cement the universality of themes such as love, loss and healing, experienced by two characters across time and space.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys thrillers and coming of age stories, and also to historical fiction lovers – it’s mainly within living memory, but it is brilliantly described and transports the reader to the worries, delights and day-to-day life of the times.

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