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Addition by Toni Jordan

April 1, 2012 19 comments

Addition by Toni Jordan 2008. French title : Tu pourrais rater intégralement ta vie.

 After discovering that John Self + Lou Ford = Matt Freeman  I was more than happy to bury myself into Toni Jordan’s Addition. Just what kind of addition is this?

Grace Vandenburg is 35, lives in Melbourne and hasn’t worked for 25 months. Although we only discover later in the novel why she lost her job as a teacher, we are immediately aware of Grace’s problem. Grace counts. Everything. Her footsteps, the stairs, the number of seeds on her cake. She measures everything, keeps in touch with the outside temperature. Numbers qualify things, put reassuring fences in her life.

Numbers rule her life as comforting milestones. She strictly follows the same schedule everyday; she does exactly the same things at the same time. She’s fond of 10s and thus buys things by tens at the supermarket. She’s single, usually interacts with no one but her mother and her sister Jill who minutely call every Sunday at 8:00pm and 8:15pm respectively. “Interact” is perhaps optimistic here. Grace talks to them over the phone but there is no real conversation; they exchange small news and everyone thinks their duty is done. Grace’s only relationship is with her ten-year-old niece Hilary.

Grace admires Nikola Tesla a Serbian-American scientist. He was an important contributor to the birth of commercial electricity and is best known for developing the modern alternating current (AC) electrical supply system. (Wikipedia) To me his name brought back vague memories of unintelligible physics classes. To Grace, he’s like a lifebelt. He was also a bit off-kilter and was still a genius, something Grace finds comforting.

Grace has her life mapped out, so when she realizes at the cashier of her usual supermarket that she picked only nine bananas instead of ten, her need for accuracy is such that she relieves the customer next to her of the banana he has in his basket. She’s horrified by her slip and is still recovering from it in the parking lot when the above mentioned customer catches up with her and enquires after the reason why she stole that banana.

This is how and when she meets Seamus. What will come out of this encounter is up to you to discover. In other words, read the book.

Addition is a lovely book. I wish I could do it justice by writing a lovely review. It’s a first person narrative and we see the events and life in general through Grace’s eyes. She knows her addiction to number limits her life and she lives with it.

Life would be different if I didn’t count, I know that.

But without it the world would be too big and too dangerous. An endless void. I’d be lost all the time. I’d be overwhelmed.

She has come to think of her difference as a blessing, most of the time. She sees life through a peculiar angle, blurts out hilarious replies and is as funny as her illness allows her to be. But despite her acceptance, she is suffering:

I want it to stop. I want it all to stop.

Suddenly I’m sick of it. Sick of counting all the time. Of all the little games and rules and orders and lists and chewing my food 30 times and drinking a cup of tea before bed every night. I want to have a job and go to the movies and have a family and people over for a dinner that is not chicken and vegetables. I want to be like everybody else. I want to run as fast as I can in bare feet and on grass like I’m a child and my hair is streaming behind me. I want to run and I want to feel my leg muscles stretch and pull and my chest heave in the service of my freedom.

I don’t want to count anymore.

Don’t think it’s a sad book, because it isn’t. Addition is a plea to accept difference. We want to heal mental illness for people to be “normal”. But define “normal”? It also subtly points out how our societies want us to comply with the married-two-kids-a-house-and-two-cars model. There is a tendency to present it as the only way to be happy. Once I heard someone say about a thirtysomething single woman that she had no life. How can that be? She had friends, family, a job and hobbies. Isn’t it a life? As Grace points out:

Most people miss their whole lives, you know. Listen, life isn’t when you are standing on top of a mountain looking at the sunset. Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born or that time you were swimming in deep water and a dolphin came up alongside you. These are fragments. 10 or 12 grains of sand spread throughout your entire existence. These are not life. Life is brushing your teeth or making a sandwich or watching the news or waiting for the bus. Or walking. Every day, thousands of tiny events happen and if you’re not watching, if you’re not careful, if you don’t capture them and make them count, you could miss it.

You could miss your whole life.

I do like the idea of cherishing mundane events and make the most of everyday life. Jordan’s novel is a light read, funny, with an unusual character. I enjoyed the way she intertwined Grace’s life with references to Tesla’s life. I was caught by the book, I couldn’t put it down. Light literature isn’t easy to write. The author is walking on a high wire, on one side they can fall into the void of so much comedy it becomes vulgar or silly and on the other side they stare at the dangerous precipice of mawkishness.

I bought Addition after reading a post about Toni Jordan on Lisa’s blog. Thanks Lisa! I had a great time.

PS: Now that you know about Grace, you can guess there are a lot of numbers in the book. That explains the foreword I talked about here.

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