“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.
Sophie 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.