The House at Number 10 by Dorothy Johnston

“In small and large ways, Sophie felt herself adjusting, and wanted only space and quiet, the unremarkable continuance of days.”

With the finer weather, prostitutes are now appearing in the dozens. Well they are, at least, whenever I look out of the window. Most of them seem to live in the cut-rate motel down the street, and at about 11 in the morning, the early birds appear in the motel parking lot–some stroll a block or two until they are picked up and whisked away in cars. The returns, which occur thirty to forty minutes later are always interesting–the cars don’t seem to stop; they just slow down. The prostitute steps out, sometimes a bit wobbly on outrageously high heels, and the car speeds away. The drivers can’t seem to get away fast enough, and as for the prostitutes, they never look back but stalk away. The space between these two, the prostitute and her client grows, and there’s the sense of contempt, a disavowal of what just happened in the air.  

All these observations ran through my head as I read Australian author Dorothy Johnston’s novel The House at Number 10–a book recommended to me by Gummie over at Whispering Gums. The story takes place in Canberra with legalization of prostitution looming and concerns a young woman named Sophie who has just been abandoned by her self-absorbed husband, Andrew after six years of marriage. He left “not for another woman, but a floating open-ended freedom.” When he offers her the old marital home, she refuses, “thinking of him floating through these rooms designed for a family on his raft of girls.” This motif of space, literal and figurative occurs frequently throughout this quiet, subtle novel–literally, in the way we define space through architecture, and figuratively through Architecture of the Self.

the house at number 10Sophie joins Elise and Kirsten working in a bordello owned and operated by a man named Marshall, who seems to find his role hip, and cutting-edge rather than exploitive. Marshall has a long-term relationship with Elise, a woman whose prickly nature keeps everyone at a distance. The third woman in the bordello is world-weary, chain-smoking Kirsten who schools Sophie, in her trial period, about sticking to limits with johns: a strict thirty minute rule (which Sophie learns to enforce), and the mandatory use of condoms.

With no clear time demarcations, the story manages to convey a pervasive sense of drifting,”this pressure of suspended animation”--not only Andrew is floating on his figurative raft. Similarly Elise’s space within the bordello, between customers is spent stretching and meditating on her yoga mat while Kirsten chain smokes in a large armchair which faces the window. Sophie cast adrift from her former life and role as a wife, initially nervous about becoming a prostitute, but fueled by curiosity, adapts to her new employment. She gathers a few regulars, tosses away the occasional offering of flowers but keeps the chocolates, and learns how to control the sexual encounters.  Although Sophie has made a very deliberate choice to become a sex worker, there’s the sense that her life is in a holding pattern, and when she leaves the “house at number 10,”  she sheds the experiences like an extra skin.

The motif of architecture is cleverly weaved into the novel; Marshall and Elise want to make the bordello a little smarter, more welcoming to customers, and they employ Sophie’s friend, Ann, an architect to draw blueprints modifying the small house in suburban Canberra. Similarly, the garden, a blank space is ear-marked for renovation. Meanwhile Sophie, who finds herself without the clear lines of her marriage to Andrew, must arrive at some point of self-knowledge in order to redefine herself. Working as a prostitute doesn’t encourage Sophie to redefine herself or her new life, as once she steps inside the house at number 10, she becomes the fetish object for the men that she encounters as they define her for their own needs. Again there’s the sense that Sophie is drifting along through life, and that having survived the detonation of her marriage, she has yet to select her new course, her new design. Andrew has the gall to produce pamphlets for university courses, telling her, a woman he’s abandoned in order to begin a life, “you should go back to study.”  No small amount of patronage and guilt there. Sophie doesn’t tell him where to stuff his pamphlets but instead, perhaps due in part to the way in which she’s learned to simulate feelings, she even manages a ‘thank-you’ when Andrew takes umbrage at her lack of gratitude.

It takes a crisis for Sophie, the mother of a small  daughter, to take control of her life, stop drifting and make some decisions.

I’m not a writer, but as a reader, writing about prostitution is a tough subject as we bring our assumptions, fantasies and prejudices to the subject. The prostitutes in this Canberra suburb with their regular customers are a different breed from the streetwalkers I see daily. Elise, Kirsten, and Sophie’s lives seem positively tame compared to the bottom-feeders of the prostitution world. The novel doesn’t dwell on the sexual encounters–rather the plot emphasizes how Sophie copes with various situations, and how she manages the men who come to her for sex.

We learn that Sophie is drawn to prostitution by the “enticement of making some fast money behind her ex-husband’s back,” revenge and at one time thinks that it ‘serves him right.’ But the transition from abandoned wife to prostitute occurs so swiftly that while this may be explained by numbness and a desire for revenge, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Sophie as a character. But the author doesn’t shy away from this aspect of the novel, and at one point, grabby Marshall shares my thoughts when he tells Sophie  that she doesn’t “look the part.

Particularly interesting is how the author uses the motifs of design of space and the design of the self. Do we design our spaces or do they define us? All of these characters inhabit their own spaces in the world, Andrew, his “raft of girls,” Elise her yoga mat, and Kirsten sequesters the ancient armchair. The encounters between prostitutes and their clients, although intimate, remain fundamentally business like; the psyches of these women are inviolate and impenetrable. In these cases, physical intimacy heralds the terrifying gap of the emotional void, a vast empty space between two people, breached only by money. A simple transaction, and yet immensely complex. The bordello, like a cheap motel, is functional, but blank, bland and anonymous. Sophie finds that the “walls and the curtains of the side room would not give her away. … The homely, unfashionable room, with its few simple props, became her silent ally.”

Sophie felt the pressure of suspended animation in herself as well, as her nights spent at the house increased in number, as she sought her level and her place there, as the past before Andover Street began to slip behind her, not only into another time frame, but another life as well.

The House at Number 10 is a thought-provoking, provocative read for its topic and what’s not overtly stated–is Sophie’s decision to become a prostitute, for example, a reaction to her earlier sexual exclusivity? Prostitution is, for Sophie, a means to designing a new Architecture of the Self. Through becoming the “Sophie of the Kingston house,” she learns what she is capable of.

 Sophie knew her face was a blank. Sometimes, clients, when she turned to face them, willing them to get off the bed, get dressed, had a look of apology, sometimes they even apologized in words, and this she could not bear. The ones who became quickly, simply, self-sufficient, wanting nothing more from her ever now the agreed exchange had been completed–these ones Sophie recognized, though she did not respect them. They answered her desire for clean lines of division, endings that were neat.




Filed under Fiction, Johnston Dorothy

28 responses to “The House at Number 10 by Dorothy Johnston

  1. Great review Guy … I love your discussion of space in the novel. It is powerful, and stays with you, long after you finish the book.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and generous review! I’m very pleased that you understand the architectural metaphors – Canberra of course being, at least initially, an architect’s dream city. I enjoyed reading about the scenes from your window – and you’re right about the stalking and the disavowal.
    It’s an odd feeling, looking back at something you wrote over a decade ago and wondering what you’d do differently. You’re right about Sophie being in limbo – perhaps too much? I’d like to know what it is about her as a character that you find less than convincing – in the spirit, not of improving this novel, which I clearly can’t do, but thinking about future ones.
    And as for the subject of prostitution – I believe I’m free of it at last.

    • I think her transition to being a prostitute is too smooth. If there was something in her background to explain this or else a transition period, this would have supported her character. No I don’t think she’s too much in limbo–what’s that sage advice about not making huge life decisions too soon…? I understood her decision to become a prostitute as impulse. Bad idea.. But she learns to redefine herself from the experience. I liked the limbo because after all limbo is stasis in between progress and decay (back to that architecture metaphor).

  3. Interesting (book and your experience). You seem to live in a colorful neighbourhood. I lived on the corner of rue St. Denis in Paris for a year where you find the bottom-feeders of Parisian prostitution. No cars taking them away though. It all happens in the houses. I was always fascinated by the many different categories of prostitution. People seem to think it’s all the same. It’s not and it’s very complex. And very often you couldn’t even tell. I once met a upper class prostitute in Switzerland who was booked once a year by Michael Douglas to spend a few days in St Moritz – with other women – . Comparing her to the old “girls” ( some 60+ walking their little “caniches” -poodles – and wearing hardly anything under a fishnet thingy) on rue St Denis – what a difference. Money wise as well.
    I like the idea of the architectural elements.

    • Colourful is one word for it.
      You would be fascinated by this book, I think.

      Yes you are right, there are so many sub-categories within the profession. I think of the girls lured into the trade by false promises of job and then imprisoned in rape rooms until they are broken and compliant.

      The ones I see won’t make it to 60. I would imagine they have a very short shelf life.

  4. Brian Joseph

    Sounds like a great book.

    I agree however that the depiction of prostitution sounds very rose colored and not reflective of reality. Of course it is a big world out there and situations like those described might exist somewhere.

  5. Brian – I’d like to interpret ‘rose-coloured’ in a slightly different way. What struck me forcibly when I worked in a Melbourne massage parlour, (thirty years ago, but I doubt very much if this has changed), was an essential theatricality – everyone wore masks. Language – conversation – was a matter of layered deception, and the women I came to know were highly conscious of this. The writer who has captured these theatrical qualities best, in my opinion, is Jean Genet.
    The personal experience I had was somehow formative of me as a writer. I’m not sure why or how, but it has something to do with imaginative responses to a constantly shifting reality. I agree with Caroline about the complexity. Prostitution is about so much more than hiring out one’s body.
    And Guy – on reflection, I agree with you about Sophie’s transition. If I were writing the novel today, that’s one thing I would do differently. And I love your definition of limbo! I’ve never thought of it in quite that way before.

  6. Brian:
    I wouldn’t say it was a ‘rose-coloured’ depiction of prostitution–for that I always think of the nauseating film , “Pretty Woman.”

    Re: constantly shifting reality–I’ve always thought that it must be strange to be in a relationship with an actress as how would you know when they were turning a performance on and off.

    • Interesting comparison with actresses, given the strong creation in the book of that kitchen where the girls hang out, which is their space, like a green room in a theatre, where they can ‘be themselves’ and yet that self is a mystery to others. What strikes me about this book, and the related ‘9 pieces about prostitution’ – also about Sandra Mahoney- is the quiet, observant, reflective narrative voice, which creates a kind of inner shell of story within the action of the plot. Very characteristic of Dorothy Johnston female narrators.

      • Yes, I like your description of her narrative voice gertloveday. I have read the pieces about prostitution but not the Sandra Mahoney novels.

      • Good to know that the quiet narrative voice is characteristic of the novels, as I have the crime ones, Sandra Mahoney, to read. I can’t seem to find out much about the backlist titles: Maralinga My Love & One for the Master . Have you read those?

        • ‘One for the Master’ was shortlisted for Australia’s Miles Franklin. It’s set in the Victorian city of Geelong in a turn-of-the century woollen mill and has a central female character who, though she’s uneducated, has that Johnston perceptiveness and will. ‘Maralinga My Love’ I haven’t read but I believe it is about the atmospheric testing that took place in Australia when the Brits were developing the bomb, and the ethical struggles of a male protagonist who is a scientist involved in it. It’s hard to get hold of but would be interesting because of that male protagonist. And yes, read Sandra Mahoney.

  7. I’ve not read either of these books, but from reading the reviews I wonder how interesting it would be to look at this one and Romance of a Shop together. It seems to me like similar issues are addressed though the two are 100 years apart. Maybe I should read them both.

  8. Yes you’re right both books do cover similar issues: how does a woman survive in society. Sophie has options, but she never really explores those.

  9. That sounds truly excellent Guy, and some nice comments from the author too!

    The interplay between ideas of architecture and construction of self sounds absolutely fascinating, as does the emotional labour/performance element.

    Not having read it yet I can’t of course comment on the motivation, but I sometimes wonder if fiction (literary, tv, film) primes us to much to look for motive. In life I think things often just happen, and we can backform a motive but the truth is there may not be some neat cause. Of course to the extent the book didn’t persuade in that aspect it didn’t succeed in that aspect – if there’s no great motive it becomes the book’s job to persuade that something happened without great motive (I just finished Didion’s Play it where it Lays which in part does precisely that).

    Anyway, definitely on to my TBR pile.

    On an unrelated note, I can’t recall if I’ve already said but I finished Thursday Night Widows recently and absolutely loved it. I’ll be reading more by Pineiro.

    • Glad you’re interested in this one, Max. I had to chew over the book for some time before the review. Motivation isn’t as much a troubling issue (and I think you have a good point about film, btw) as much as transition. Sophie has no history of this sort of work in her background, but she applies, & starts right away. I cannot imagine what this must be like, but I would think that on some level, the average woman would be troubled by the job–I don’t mean guilty conscience but there would have to be some period of adjustment, mentally. Adjustment is touched on (which I won’t go in to), but I felt that there should have been a bit more explored there.
      Just a minor gripe over an otherwise wonderful, yet somehow troubling book.
      Thursday Night Widows is great isn’t it? So glad the author is making it to translation. All Yours is hilarious and The Crack in the Wall is quietly gripping. BTW, I watched the film of Thursday Night Widows and it missed most of what the book said. .

  10. Thank you Guy, Max, Gert and WG, for continuing this conversation. Your comments are immensely valuable to me and are giving me much food for thought! I can’t go back and re-write Sophie, of course, but I’m often accused of not explaining things and giving my characters sufficient motivation. (I know you’re talking about transition, Guy, rather than motivation, and, as I’ve said above, I agree your point is a valid one.) But I DO agree with Max that readers may be increasingly tuned to expect a fair amount of explanation, more than I feel like giving, anyway. Which makes me feel stupid for attempting a mystery quartet! But I do love mysteries that deepen the further you read, and end with the feeling that only the surface has been scratched… I will look out Thursday Night Windows.

    • That’s an interesting point made by Max. I don’t really agree with Guy on this … I was, perhaps a little surprised by her decision to take this path, but didn’t find it not believable BUT then I am a reader who suspends her disbelief very easily, a little too easily some might say. I tend to get into the book and go where the writer takes me rather than think “I don’t think that would happen”. People are very strange creatures and can do the the most unexpected things. However (and this is me doing the “on the one hand X but on the other hand Y” thing that dogs my thinking), I appreciate that in fiction it is sometimes necessary to be not quite as strange as life can be!

      • Motivation is a hard nut to crack. Who knows why people do things, and sometimes they can’t even explain it themselves. It’s transition I was troubled by. That said though, this book gave me more food for thought than other books I’d recently read. There was a troubling undercurrent to this story, all these issues in the background, the neighbours, Marshall’s grabby hands, Kirsten’s illness, a customer on the verge of violence. …

  11. Great review and fascinating comments. I’m glad I’m late to read this post ad I get to read all the comments in a single sitting. I love when you have writer entering the discussion.

    I haven’t read the book, so I can only speculate. If my TBR weren’t as high as the Eiffel Tower I’d add this one to the list right away. I’m definitely curious. Sophie moving from wife to prostitute is unusual. (if all discarded wives made that kind of choices, we’d all live in colourful neighbourhoods like you) BUT. She was more a trophy wife than a life partner to Andrew and she goes from being objectified by one man to being objectified (and paid for it) by many men. She’s still not a life partner for men. She just provides sex and is now free of household duties. 🙂 And so, there’s some consistency to it.

    It reminded me of Belle de Jour by Joseph Kessel, although the motives of the characters are totally different.

    • You’d like this, Emma.
      I felt as though Sophie, and there are some revenge elements to her thinking, says ‘why not?’ Everything she thought she had blew up in her face, and when that happens, it’s a dangerous time. Rugs pulled out from underneath you and whatnot, morality scrambles and emerges redefined.

      Funnily enough, I thought of Belle de Jour, but in that film there are definite hints about the sterility of Severine’s marriage and also her childhood contains a couple of perverted moments, so it’s easy to see that her double life is just an outlet for the other side of her character. I’m talking about the film as I have yet to read the book.

      • We thought of Belle de Jour because the two characters don’t look the part: you wouldn’t expect them to become prostitutes. We can rationalise prostitution when someone is in desperate need for money. It’s difficult to wrap your head around other motives.

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