The Fortress is the third novel by S.A. Jones and, with its speculative and erotic elements, a radical departure from Red Dress Walking (2008) and Isabelle of the Moon and Stars (2014). The Fortress has been described as:
‘The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Natural Way of Things at a cocktail party thrown by Anais Nin’
‘A Molotov cocktail of a book: intensely furious, perversely fascinating, and unputdownable.’—Jodi McAlister
‘…a damning judgement on patriarchy, and a meditation on the labours of atonement.’—Damon Young
‘One of the decade’s best books’—Better Reading
I found it absorbing and confronting; a fast-paced read and, at the same time, a work of intelligence and formidable imagination that makes you pause to think; a novel so relevant to the #metoo movement that it appears to have been expressly created in that dark light. Which, although a lifetime in the making, it has been.
S.A. Jones’s impressive author blurb will tell you that she has a PhD in History, and has published opinion pieces and essays on politics, history, sexuality, public policy and theology for Kill Your Darlings, The Age, The Guardian, Overland, The Toast, Regime, The Drum and Page Seventeen. In 2013 she was recognised as one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence for her work in public policy, and just this week was named a finalist in the 2018 Women in Industry Awards.
The blurb fails to mention her great love of chardonnay and Wuthering Heights and all-things-Christmas, and her fierce capacity for friendship. But there, now you know.
The blurb for The Fortress reads:
Jonathon Bridge’s arrival at The Fortress—a society run and populated by women—begins with a recitation of the conditions of his stay: he is forbidden to ask questions, to raise his hand in anger, and to refuse sex.
Jonathon has offered himself as a supplicant in The Fortress after his pregnant wife Adalia discovered the ugly sexual violence pervading his top-tier firm. She has agreed to continue their fractured relationship on the condition he enter The Fortress for one year.
Jonathon is utterly unprepared for what will happen to him over the course of the year—not only to his body, but to his mind and his heart.
This absorbing, confronting and moving novel asks questions about consent, power, love and fulfilment. It asks what it takes for a man to change, and whether change is possible without a radical reversal of the conditions that seem normal.
And now, over to Serje…
2 things that inspired The Fortress
I began writing this book when I was about twelve, although I didn’t know it then. At the time I was a competitive swimmer and had the occasional dream of Olympic glory. But I also wanted to be Prime Minister and David Attenborough, so I was keeping my options open.
Along with four others in my swim squad, all boys, I had achieved the qualifying time to try out for the state swim team. This meant travelling from our tiny island in the Buccaneer Archipelago to the big smoke of Port Hedland in the Pilbara.
Being four boys and me in the 1980s, our squad was called ‘SJ and the Meaner Machine’, after the formidable Australian relay team ‘The Mean Machine’.
We were chaperoned by the coach and his wife and billeted with a family in Port Hedland. A roster of chores was drawn up for us five kids while we were there (a sensible thing to do given we ate constantly and created mountains of chlorinated washing).
When it was Jeffrey’s turn to do the dishes, he refused. This put my coach and his wife in an awkward position, because Jeffrey was their son. His parents insisted.
Jeffrey refused and began to glow red around the ears. This was a warning sign we were all familiar with. Jeffrey was an epic tantrum thrower—the sort of tantrums that should be preserved on scrolls and alluded to in awed whispers.
The embarrassment in the room at Jeffrey’s refusal became a palpable thing, another presence.
As the redness spread from Jeffrey’s ears to his temples and a high-pitched whine began to escape his mouth, Jeffrey’s mother announced that I would do his dishes.
His dishes. As well as the dishes I was rostered to do.
‘That’s not fair’, I pointed out.
But the desire to avert a scene was stronger than the inclination for fairness, and my protests fell on deaf ears.
As I stood by the sink doing Jeffrey’s dishes, my face burning with humiliation, Jeffrey smirked at me from the doorway.
For the few days we were billeted there, I had to do all Jeffrey’s chores as well as my own.
During those few days, my consciousness of girlhood, and what that means in relation to boyhood, was born. Even setting aside the gross error of judgement in releasing Jeffrey from his chores, there were three other kids in that team besides me and Jeffrey. But they were boys.
Housework was girl work. I was the girl. The SJ in the Meaner Machine.
In some ways, Jeffrey has always been smirking at me from the doorway of that kitchen.
I’ve read wonderful, powerful books about the female experience such as Kate Grenville’s Dark Places, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things.
But where was the book about Jeffrey? About what happens to a boy who learns early in life that the world will bend his way. Who is not taught to discipline his emotions and appetites. Who expects that handmaids will clean up when he won’t.
And, more importantly, what does it take for this man to change?
The Fortress is my answer to that question.
For my second point of inspiration, let me return to Jeffrey’s smirking. That experience was humiliating, but it was also galvanising. Perhaps without the Jeffreys and their smirking I would not be so driven and so focused.
Nothing inspires bloody-mindedness so much as being told ‘you can’t’.
2 places connected with The Fortress
I began writing The Fortress in the most idyllic circumstances. I was on holiday in Kamala Beach, Thailand, with my husband, daughter, sister and brother-in-law. After breakfast I would find a secluded spot under a tree or beach umbrella and write. Over dinner, we would discuss the ideas and characters I was developing.
Thai food, margaritas, sand underfoot and good company made writing this book the most joyful of my novel-writing experiences.
The Fortress is also connected to the dining room in one of my close girlfriends’ house. I’ve sat around her table many times over the twenty plus years of our friendship, and on a particular evening I realised something: that with one exception, all the women sitting at that table had disclosed to me their experience of sexual assault.
Some had been sexually abused by a trusted family friend, some by family members, some by partners, some by people they didn’t know. The ubiquity of the experience, the banality of it even, both saddened and enraged me.
The Fortress represents the concentration and disciplining of that rage.
2 favourite artworks inspired by The Fortress
Ekphrasis has always fascinated me, so to have The Fortress refracted in other mediums is gratifying and intriguing.
Tom Conyers painted this after reading The Fortress. His visual rendering of my words moves me so much. And those olöcks…sublime. [Olöcks are ground-dwelling birds that inhabit The Fortress.]
Ambient musician Jason Johnston, performing as Newtropic, composed this piece after being inspired by a space in The Fortress called the Shaenet. The Shaenet is a garden where medicinal and recreational herbs are grown.
The Fortress is available now
Reviews at Better Reading and The Australian
Listen to an interview on RRR
Find out more at Echo Publishing