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Netty on Lovesong – the Miller book, not the Simple Minds tune. Which is, admittedly, great too …

June 23, 2011

Jeez, where does the time go? I mean, I know June is one of the shorter months of the year, but sheesh – it’s almost bloody July! So, yeah, we’re a little late on this month’s ANRC blog. Also, uncharacteristically, you’re hearing from me first up rather than Andy. That’s because Andy has been battling PC problems at home – but he assures me he’ll be back up and running shortly, firing off his usual arsenal of pithy online one-liners like they’re going out of fashion.

Last month we read Alex Miller’s award-winning (Age Book of the Year, NSW Premier’s Award) Lovesong. Now, Mills and Boon it certainly ain’t (and nor would it want to be), but Lovesong is nonetheless a love story, pure and simple – as if the obviousness of the book’s title doesn’t give it away. We haven’t read a lot of “love stories” during the past three and a half years of ANRC – Vikram Seth’s searing, seething An Equal Music springs immediately to mind; A.S. Byatt’s Possession (which is actually two love stories in the one almighty tome); the twisted relationship of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea; the ill-fated triangle in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; you could even make a case for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s loathsome Memories Of My Melancholy Whores, although the narcisstic narrator was in love with no one more than himself.

The British-born, Australian author (he’s been on our shores since he was a teenager, so the ‘British-born’ bit is a moot point – he’s definitely “one of ours” now) Alex Miller has been on the ANRC radar for a while now. Andy has previously read Journey To The Stone Country (a Miles Franklin winner), while Lovesong marks my first – but certainly not my last – foray into his work. Miller is a beautiful writer of the most exquisite, eminently readable prose – even when I was grappling with some of the concepts herein, or the twists and turns of the plot, I was never anything less than enchanted, nay spellbound, by the writing itself.

And whilst Lovesong is primarily the story of the relationship between Australian John Patterner and his Tunisian-Parisian bride Sabiha, Miller – as you would expect from a writer of his stature and reputation – puts that story into another story, secondary and contextual, but integral to the novel’s overarching structure.

Lovesong is narrated by Ken, a successful Melbourne writer, recently retired, who makes the acquaintance of the newcomers to his neighbourhood. He befriends John, who confides his story to Ken, whose writer’s instincts are sufficiently piqued for him to retell John’s story – relayed through Ken’s eyes as he goes about his own life. Make no mistake – John and Sabiha always take centre stage in Lovesong, but Ken plays one helluva supporting role throughout this book.

Travelling through Europe, and on a side trip through France, John takes shelter from a rainstorm, stumbling into a small cafe in the Parisian arrondissment of Vaugirard, run by the recently widowed Houria, a Tunisian who has made the city her home, and her young niece Sabiha. From the outset, John and Sabiha are drawn to each other and embark upon a union that is fated, but ultimately troubled. The couple marries and takes over the running of the cafe after the death of aunt Houria, but their marriage is put under considerable strain as Sabiha fails to fall pregnant and fulfil her life-long wish to bear a baby girl. A careless remark from John sets in motion a chain of events that irrevocably changes the course of their relationship.

Over a series of meetings, John tells his tale to Ken, a widower who is struggling in post-retirement, living uneasily with his adult daughter Clare and feeling restless and without direction. Although he has written his self-proclaimed “final novel” Ken sees an opportunity in John’s story for one last hit-out. Ironically, through Ken, John finds the confidence within himself to want to commit his own story to paper; Ken remains unconvinced he can do so, but concedes that the story will be told to others, one way or another.

As I remarked to Andy over pork ribs at Little Creatures the other day (for some reason they seem to have taken pork belly off the menu there – I mean, their ribs are OK, but their pork belly is, or was, well, unparalleled in this pork lover’s universe … what do you mean I’m digressing? This book – ipso facto, this blog post – is about love, and yours truly happens to love pork belly! OK, maybe I am digressing …) what surprised me most about Lovesong is firstly, the youthful, some would say naive, hopefulness in the concept of everlasting love; and secondly, the wilful, some would say stubborn, holding on to said belief in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary. Perhaps he is a romantic at heart, but I found it odd that Miller, who is in his seventies and married – still and only the once, as far as I can ascertain – can write about love in such an optimistic and sunny fashion, even in the face of gloom, of which there is certainly much throughout the depiction of John and Sabiha’s relationship.

The two pivotal characters are both fascinating and annoying. Is John strong and stoic, or is he a masochistic doormat? Is Sabiha proud and self-sacrificing, or stubborn and reckless? Their story exists perfectly well as its own, standalone entity, but setting it in Ken’s world was, for mine, Miller’s masterstroke. Ken as a character is also not without his flaws (and you can’t help but wonder how closely he is modelled on the author himself), but the narrator is a ray of sunshine illuminating the grave brevity of John and Sabiha’s often-dark, insular world. And I know what I ultimately liked better. For me, it was kind of like watching the movie Girl, Interrupted. Sure, Winona Ryder puts in a worthy performance in the lead role, but it’s Angelina Jolie who steals every scene (and wins the Oscar for best supporting actress to boot).

Ladies and gentlemen, I rest my case.

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