cover image A Big Life

A Big Life

Susan Johnson. Faber & Faber, $22.95 (312pp) ISBN 978-0-571-16957-3

Johnson's ( Flying Lessons ) second novel is an example of that unusual breed, a thoughtful epic, which meticulously maps its hero's interior landscape even as he spans decades and continents. The ``big life'' in question is desired by Australian-born Billy Hayes, whose genius for ``tumbling'' (acrobatics) leads him from his native Sydney to London in search of fame, fortune and the fair Bubbles Drake. This is an old-fashioned, baggy, picaresque, albeit comparatively muted story, in keeping with its mostly Depression-era and wartime backdrop. Despite the period settings, the narrative displays only a sketchy sense of place or the wider history of Billy's life and times, and focuses on his half-articulated yearnings and his obsession with his art. Billy is an unusual yet ultimately winning hero, whose long learning curve from boyhood fantasy to a chastened, unillusioned adulthood readers will follow with growing sympathy. Johnson writes in a fluid, colorful prose that frequently captures the flavor of a passing moment with something of Billy's own willful naivete. Ultimately, Billy's story gives the lie to the myth of the ``big'' life. Rather, it's in their recognition that the intensely felt moment can outpace grand ambition that these affectionately realized characters achieve their true grandeur. (Oct.)