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A BIG LIFE by Susan Johnson


by Susan Johnson

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-571-16957-0
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 The author of Flying Lessons (1991) offers a superficially old-fashioned story--about an Australian boy who ``would grow up to look into the eyes of a king''--made agreeably contemporary by modish conventions of style and intent. From the moment baby Billy Hayes, the youngest of Sapphire Hayes's children and the closest to her heart, ``knew the shock and joy of being alive in mid-air,'' the course of his future was determined. Born in Australia in the midst of WW I, Billy enjoys a blissful childhood until his father, wounded and embittered, returns from Europe. As Sapphire continues to make excuses for her husband's cruel treatment of the children (to ``acknowledge Jack Hayes as he truly was would mean admitting that she had chosen the wrong man''), Billy becomes the butt of his father's temper. Aware of his athletic potential, however, Billy also begins to set himself physical tests. A chance encounter with year-older Reginald Tsang, the son of a Chinese family of professional tumblers, soon focuses Billy's ambitions and talents. Like any good Victorian hero, Billy must endure a testing of character, and this he does- -triumphantly--as his father in the midst of the Depression sells him, Billy, now an accomplished gymnast, to a couple of traveling tumblers, who abruptly take Billy from his beloved mother and native Australia to England, where he becomes part of their increasingly popular act. At home only in the air, Billy becomes a star, performs in front of royalty, marries cold Bubbles, who divorces him soon after son Michael is born, then must change careers as variety shows are replaced by television. But just as Billy, reunited with a childhood love, is filled with a sense of being blessed with a ``talent that had brought him immeasurable joy,'' modernism intervenes: there will be no happy ending. Not, in the end, your average hero, or your average story, as Johnson movingly celebrates the resilience of the human spirit.