Review: ‘The Fragments’ by Toni Jordan

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️☆

When the beautiful, reclusive Inga Karlson died in a fire in New York in 1939, she left behind three things: a phenomenally successful first novel, the scorched fragments of a second book and a mystery that has captivated generations of fans.

Nearly half a century later one of those fans, Brisbane bookseller Caddie Walker, is waiting in line for an exhibition. The famous Karlson fragments are in town. For Caddie, this is the biggest thing ever to hit Brisbane. But it’s a chance encounter in the queue – a conversation with a stranger – that will change her life. Incredibly, it seems someone in this overgrown country town knows something new about the fragments.

Caddie is electrified. Jolted from her sleepy, no-worries life, she is driven to find the clues that will unlock the greatest literary mystery of the twentieth century.

The Fragments is a story with two narrative arcs, set some fifty years apart.

In Allentown, Pennsylvania, a young Rachel Lehrer is coming of age in a family and community ravaged by the Great Depression of the 1930s. When Rachel’s parents fall on hard times, the family abandons rural life, moving to the city in search of employment. Her parents soon become factory people, working long hours in a silk mill to make ends meet. At the same time, Rachel leaves school to manage the household and care for her younger brother.

After her mother falls ill and is no longer able to work, 18-year-old Rachel takes her place on the factory floor. As the deprivations of the Great Depression mount, so the atmosphere at home deteriorates until finally, Rachel can take no more. She flees to New York City, where a chance encounter with one Inga Karlson sets her life on a surprising new course.

Fast forward to 1986 suburban Brisbane. 28-year-old Caddie Walker is captivated with the life and writings of acclaimed novelist, Inga Karlson. For Caddie, the connection to Karlson is personal – a bond with her deceased father, who named Caddie after the central character of Karlson’s debut novel, All Has an End.  He would often read the book to her as a child, and as Caddie grew, so did their mutual love of Karlson’s writing and fascination with the fragments.

When a random conversation offers a clue as to the fate of Karlson’s much-anticipated second novel, it reignites Caddie’s obsession. She immediately embarks on a quest to solve the decades-old literary mystery, enlisting the help of an ambitious, narcissistic former lover and an attractive new ally with a score to settle. Along the way, Caddie rediscovers her passion for research and literature, finding a purpose and direction like she hasn’t known since the death of her father.

As chapters alternate between Caddie and Rachel, their stories unfold in parallel at a steady pace. Toni Jordan expertly weaves a complex web of theories and plots, clues and red herrings through both. Each chapter complements the preceding one, providing context for the events of decades before or hence (as the case may be).

As each theory is proved or disproved, and each clue validated or dismissed, yet another reveals itself. Every chapter concludes on a suspenseful note, compelling you to turn the next page and inch that little bit closer to the heart of the mystery.

In less skilful hands, the alternate chapters could create confusion. However, Jordan paints such vivid pictures of each period and place that you are in no doubt about which character you’re with and where at each point in time. I slipped seamlessly between the two settings.

While the literary mystery is its centrepiece, The Fragments explores other universal themes of love, loss and healing. Jordan also illustrates the destructive nature of power imbalance in the home, where it may lead to domestic violence, and the workplace, where the impact may be career-defining. This adds seasoning to the narrative without changing the flavour profile.

I read this book twice, and surprisingly, enjoyed it more the second time around. Perhaps knowing the twist in the tale freed me to focus on and appreciate the skilful ambiguity of the writing, especially in the last few chapters. I think it’s key to prolonging the suspense and keeping the reader guessing until the end. The very satisfying end.

If, like Caddie, you sense the magic in stories, real and imagined, and think:

Books are time travel and space travel and mood-altering drugs … mind-melds and telepathy and past-life regression …

then this book is for you.  An easy, entertaining read. Perfect for cold winter days at home during lockdown.