Posts Tagged ‘Australian fiction’

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In which Netty wanders down the paths of memories past with a particularly memorable Boy …

May 24, 2015

Childhood is a funny thing. And, ironically, the further away from it you get, the longer looms its shadow.

boy-coverAustralian writer Sonya Hartnett gets this, and she gets this in spades. She is nominally considered a “young adult” author, although she also writes for adults (Of a Boy is one of her “adult” books, despite it concerning, and taking place in, a nine-year-old’s world).

This is not my first foray into Hartnett’s writing. Ten-odd years ago she wrote, under the pen name “Cameron S. Redfern”, the roman a clef Landscape With Animals, supposedly a barely fictionalised account of her affair with a well-known member of the local literary establishment. It is very, very good, although I can’t see a picture of the aforementioned member (ooh er, matron) these days without immediately (re)calling to mind one or two scenes from that book, details of which I won’t go into here.

She is probably the most decorated of our modern writers, too – she tends to pick up awards the way some of us pick up takeaway food. Of A Boy, published in 2002, also won its fair share of accolades. And fittingly so – there are plenty of reasons here to delve into more of Hartnett’s output of 20-odd novels.  

What’s not to like? First and foremost, she is a storyteller par excellence. Then there’s her prose, which is devastating in its simplicity and straight out of the not-a-word-wasted school of fiction. And the way she creates and sustains mood through the use of words – in the case of this book, recreating a world that is long gone (Of A Boy is set in 1977) but never too far away. As they say, the more things change …

Of A Boy is a slight novel, a mere 186 pages, easily read in one sitting (or in my case, two). It opens with a retelling of the final moments of the three Metford children, aged 10, seven and five, who set out on a foot for the local, suburban milkbar to buy ice cream, but never return home. I am guessing it is loosely based on the (in)famous case of the Beaumont children, who disappeared at a similar age from a South Australian beach in 1966; no trace of those children has ever been found.

The Metford children’s disappearance is just another issue to add to the ever-growing pile of worries that afflict nine-year-old Adrian. He is an anxious little boy who lives with Beattie, his hard-nosed, 60-year-old grandmother (or grandmonster, as he sometimes thinks of her), and his uncle Rory, an agrophobic twentysomething who struggles with the mental demons left behind by a car accident that killed his best mate.

Adrian has been abandoned by a father who doesn’t want him and a mother (Beattie’s eldest daughter) who cannot care for him, for reasons unspecified. Another daughter, Maggie (who has renamed herself Marta), visits often, bickers with her brother Rory, and needles her mother, particularly about the presence of Adrian  – a quiet, unassuming boy – in the family home. Adrian’s problems aren’t limited to home, either – at school he has one friend, Clinton Tull, the last line of defence before he falls into the abyss of friendlessness and ostracisation, an edge on which he is always teetering. Hartnett captures the sense of these devastatingly cruel schoolyard machinations better than any other writer I have encountered; they are so realistic and true to memory that at times they sucked the air out of me as I read on.

Forced to play outside one cold day (it is fast approaching winter), Adrian encounters Nicole, a slightly older girl who has moved in next door, along with her younger sister and brother (there’s that combination of three children, two girls and a boy, that is a recurring motif throughout these pages), and her parents. She calls on Adrian to help her nurse an injured bird that later dies; the two children perform a touching burial service. Nicole is abrasive, abrupt and moody; later in the book it will transpire why she dons this protective armour.

But for Adrian, she provides a welcome distraction from both home and school, as the sense of abandonment that continually dogs and threatens to overwhelm him – as he is rejected by his schoolfriend Clinton, then overhears his aunt Marta encouraging Beattie to rid herself of him – closes in. It is Nicole to whom he turns, but can this troubled pair of misfits provide salvation for each other? The sense of menace and foreboding that hangs over this novel from the get-go suggests not, although the final denouement is even more shocking than the reader could have possibly suspected. It takes a writer with an incredible amount of chutzpah to condemn her (or his) characters to their ultimate fates.

One of the blurbs on the back cover of my copy is from a review in the Sydney Morning Herald, and it sums up About A Boy better than I can: “Exquisitely painful to read … (It) is an almost suffocatingly powerful evocation of the emotional life of the very young … (for) anyone who recalls being a child. And everyone who doesn’t”.

And that is exactly the reason why I won’t be rushing out to read another Hartnett book for a while – not because she is not an exceptionally good writer (she is, and then some), but because, almost two months after reading this book, it still lingers in the dark corners of my mind, places I don’t often like to visit. This is not an easy book to shake. Read it, by all means – but don’t expect not to walk away deeply, almost unbearably affected.  

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The Well – After close to 30 years, Andy finally gets around to reading Elizabeth Jolley…

March 5, 2014

… and is pleasantly surprised, and impressed, if also slightly creeped out, and maybe even a bit confused.

I’m pretty sure Elizabeth Jolley was on my literary radar in the mid to late 80s, if not at high school then certainly at uni. But for whatever reason I never got around to reading her, apart from (possibly) the occasional short story here and there. I’m not even convinced I’ve ever read a short story of hers. I am, as I said a couple of times last year, an outrageous literary sexist.

thewellThe Well is one of Jolley’s best known works, although to my knowledge she doesn’t really have a stand-out work and there are others – Palomino, Foxybaby – that Netty and I could have read. But The Well it was, on my suggestion, and I won’t be surprised if those other couple of novels, and maybe a few others things, have been downloaded to my iPad Mini in the next 12 months. Because, yes. She passed the test. She is worth revisiting. Although, admittedly, that is partly influenced by the fact that most if not all of her books are around 200 pages long. As opposed to someone like Orhan Pamuk, whose Red Book was great, but whose books are all insanely huge.

So anyway. The Well.

If this novel (and, if I remember rightly, some others of Jolley’s) lodged in my brain long before I read it, it’s because of a reputation for its kind of weird, kind of creepy, kind of not-quite-there lesbianism. Neither of the main characters is explicitly attracted to other women – in fact Katherine, the young “servant”, is obsessed with John Travolta (insert gay joke here), while her employer, Hester, is moved to tears at one stage by the innocent reminder that she never married, was never desired, has never been in love. Although she was, maybe, at one point, in love or at least obsessed with her nanny – who was in love with – and pregnant to – her dad …Anyway. There is a rather poignant point in the novel where Hester is reminded of the fact that no man has ever desired her (or at least that’s how she sees things), and this causes her some anguish, and it’s really nicely done. It’s a few lines. It’s nothing huge. But it reverberates. It sticks. It works well.

But also, Hester has this seriously weird shit going on with Katherine. And Katherine, at the beginning of the book, is 15. And Hester is what – in her 60s, maybe? I assume. That was Jolley’s age when she got this novel published. Not that those things necessarily have any correlation whatsoever.

There is a creepy, possibly homophobic, undercurrent to this novel. Hester dotes on Katherine and Katherine sometimes seems to take advantage of that, although at other times seems to be ignorant of it. Hester is deeply jealous of Katherine’s friendship with another girl from the orphanage, Joanne, who seems to know a bit more about the world than Katherine (and maybe even Hester) does. Another creepy element – Hester insists on reading all communication between Katherine and Joanne, and Katherine is OK with that. My family moved from Melbourne to country Victoria when I was 10 and I maintained, for a few years, mail contact with one friend (just the one. It was Glenroy. Fucksake, you think there were that many people worth maintaining contact with in Glenroy in 1979?). My mother was a bit of a religious nutjob back then but even she did not insist on reading my letters to my friends. Seriously. That is messed up. But Katherine has no objection.

Weird.

The novel revolves around an accident in which a thief (bizarrely, erroneously referred to as a “mysterious creature” on the back of my secondhand 1987 edition as well as Netty’s brandspanking new edition) is caught in the bullbar of Hester’s four-wheel drive, and then dispatched by Hester down the titular well. This is where things get weirder, and creepier, because as Hester lies in bed with a migraine and Katherine manically rants about her conversations with a man (yes, a man, not a mysterious creature) in the well who is alive, not dead, and who is sometimes charming and sometimes psychotic and sometimes generous (a $100 note? In Western Australia? In the ’80s? Didn’t Aussie greenbacks only come in when the Aussie currency went plastic in the early 90s?). And you start to think Hang on, how much of what Katherine is saying is true, but that sort of pushes you a bit further and you have to start to think Hang on, how much of what Hester is saying is true? Because while the novel is written in the third person it is written entirely, in the third person, from Hester’s point of view. We’ve all heard about the unreliable narrator. But unreliable third-person narrative? Not something that’s really ever occurred to me before, although a quick google search reveals “unreliable third-person narration” is in fact a thing. So there you go.

Anyway, Jolley, with her queasy, odd story, her slightly left-of-centre approach to grammar and punctuation – not breaking rules in the way other writers did before her, simply nudging and stretching- makes her a little unique. And while the novel isn’t remotely political the farm ownership sub-plot is interesting because after Glenroy I ended up in rural Victoria and, in the mid-’80s, family farms were becoming a thing of the past, being bought up by the rich neighbours to form bigger, more efficient, more profitable businesses. That’s an inadvertent element to a novel that is mostly concerned with much stranger things.

And it’s good, Not great, maybe. But really good.

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The Man Who Love Children – Andy loves children too, but he could only eat…

December 2, 2013

So yes, that one person that reads this blog on a regular basis (although sorry… have you died?). You have waited some time for this post. You will hopefully not wait quite so long to hear what Netty has to say, but seriously, who would know…?

I can’t say I think Christina Stead is Australia’s best writer ever (I wouldn’t say that about Patrick White either, just quietly). I think she’s a very good writer, but then I Virginia Woolf left me impressed but not hugely keen to read her every last word. E.L. Doctorow left me wanting everything, now. Thea Astley wasn’t quite that orgasmic but she wasn’t far off.

Stead sits somewhere between Woolf and Astley, keeling pretty seriously towards Woolf.

The longer this blog goes the more we or at least I tend towards comparison. That’s probably a bad thing. Anyway.

childrenThe Man Who Loved Children is a classic of Australian fiction written by an Australian-born woman who spent most of her life anywhere but Australia, set in and around Washington, DC, in the United States. The titular Man is apparently based on Stead’s dad, who was apparently as appalling as you eventually realise Sam Pollitt is, and is the reason Stead spent most of her life overseas.

So, sorry. Sam is the man who loves children, which is not code for pedophile, it’s code for a fuckwit self-absorbed father who can only get a sense of his own self-worth from the worship he receives from very young children who do not realise just how shallow, just how pathetic, he really is. He isn’t actually stupid, he’s well educated, intelligent, but ultimately a big kid himself, and regards other children – most obviously his own – as potential worshippers who need to be won over. He’s not from what would in other times – oh! maybe even the time this novel was written! – not from what might be regarded as “good stock”, whereas his wife, Henny – ah, Henny! – is totally from good stock. it’s just that she has no money and her family isn’t exactly in a place to help her any more and so she, ah… she just keeps buying, and the debts keep piling up.

Henny seems to have seen Sam for what he is long before the novel opens, although that doesn’t stop her from – ahem, No spoilers. His children on the other hand do indeed worship him – except for Louie, Sam’s eldest, his daughter from his first marriage, his first wife having (arguably quite fortuitously) died in childbirth – Louie, who is stormily embracing her approaching adolescence, whose blossoming independence Sam realises must be crushed. Henny hates Louie and Louie hates Henny. They have no genetic link, after all, and you know, evolutionary psychology long ago explained the whole step-mother/step-daughter thing. That said, they occasionally share a common front in their battles with Sam.

Over three or four hundred pages this novel engaged me for the most part, amused me, annoyed me, bored me a little. But it was only Sam’s realisation of Louie’s approaching adulthood, and his determination to subvert that, that snagged me completely. None of these charactrers is particularly sympathetic – Henny is a wondrous monster, with every reason to be a monster, but even at the end when she – Oh, yeah. No spoilers. Even Louie, who apparently is  based on Stead herself (born in 1902, although she sets the novel in the 1930s), even Louie is described two or three times as ugly and fat and stupid and arguably these particular words should not alienate readers but in Stead’s hands they do. This is perhaps the modernists’ influence at work. Stead was writing autobiographical fiction, but she didn’t want her readers to know that.

But Sam’s hostility to Louie’s growing independence is seriously repulsive, and perhaps the first time that I actively disliked him, rather than just finding him really annoying. Louie is his child, but she is his eldest child and she is a child who is reaching towards a life of her own – and he can’t tolerate that. She must be dependent on him, always, in some way or other.

My favourite Australian novel ever ever is Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. He’ll have read Stead before he wrote Cloudstreet, I have no doubt. There will be those who say his novel owes too much to Stead’s to be regarded as superior. Bollocks. Both novels are autobiographical – well, Winton’s isn’t autobiographical, it’s about his grandparents, and he really did have a nanna who lived in a tent – but Winton’s is better. It’s a more enjoyable read, it’s Australian, it’s more inclusive. Stead is a arguably a little bound by her Marxism (although her Marxism is so compassionate, so inclusive, so inherently decent it would’ve got her a bullet in Moscow at the time she was writing). She’s arguably also bound by the opinions about what was good writing at the time she was writing. She transcends some of the modernist strictures with wit and humour. But still.

Unlike Woolf, I might seek out some other Stead. Or at least I am more likely to seek out some other Stead. Because there is only the vague possibility that I will seek out some more Woolf.

But look, I can’t give you a guarantee on either.

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Why Netty is happy to hang around in Mango, but in no hurry to go back to Queensland

June 3, 2012

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I’ve only ever been to Queensland twice in my life – once, to the Sunshine Coast for a good friend’s milestone birthday; the other, to Brisbane overnight for a work conference. That’s been intentional – I have never been that interested in the sunshine state, based on a raft of what are no doubt fallacies, misconceptions and myths, primarily surrounding the weather and the people. But I make no bones about that – and people such as Bob Katter don’t sway my thoughts none.

Thea Astley was born and educated in Brisbane, where she lived for the first 20-odd years of her life before relocating to New South Wales. After retiring from her career as a uni lecturer, Astley and her husband moved to Kuranda, in far north Queensland, for the best part of the 1980s; I assume It’s Raining In Mango – released in 1987 – was written there. The vast majority of the action that takes place in Astley’s novel – her 10th, published when she was 65 – is set in Queensland, although I have not been able to establish whether the townlet of Mango ever actually existed. Perhaps Andy, who is far more familiar with Queensland than myself, can help me out with this one.

Astley has a shockingly low profile in this country, considering the quality of her much-lauded output (15 novels and two short-story collections spanning 40-plus years; four Miles Franklin awards). Her name has popped up for consideration on previous ANRC lists, but what finally cemented her place was the high recommendations of our friend, colleague and occasional drinking partner Dan, who – in his low-key fashion – raved about her during one such pub session. With no prior knowledge of It’s Raining In Mango – chosen by Andy, for reasons that escape me now – I picked up a copy, scanned the back cover and, horrified, noted phrases such as “nineteenth century”, “Aboriginal dispossession”, “slaughter” and “Australian heritage”. “Jesus,” I thought to myself – and then voiced strongly the next time I encountered Dan – “a fine, light, breezy holiday read this is going to be”.  (Yes, like Andy, I too am on holidays; unlike Andy, I am not swanning around Greek islands, working on my tan, drinking beer and eating gyros.)

Don’t judge a book by its (back) cover, though. I am pleased to report that my initial reservations were completely unfounded (sorry, Dan – I never should have doubted you!).  It’s Raining In Mango is an immensely enjoyable account of four generations of the Laffey family, spanning four generations across the mid-19th to late-20th centuries. A compact 240 pages, it’s also immensely readable; I knocked it over during the course of three nights. And although it has been a while since I’ve perused any secondary-school reading lists, I hope Astley – and in particular this book, especially dealing as it does with the issues and dichotomies between the white settlers and indigenous Australians – is firmly entrenched in there.

The first page provides a roll call of the book’s characters and a family tree of their relationships, giving a Six Feet Under-style list of date of births/deaths and causes. I didn’t think this type of “spoiler” detracted at all from the unfolding of the story; I kept returning to this page to double-check character details as I read. The prologue opens in the early 1980s, with Connie Laffey, aged in her mid-60s, at the scene of a forestry protest involving her 40-something son Reever. She trips over in the ensuing chaos and her mind travels back through time, through her family history, “her body … crippled with memory” (Astley is an absolute master of the succinct, evocative phrase).

The book then backtracks to the start of the family’s story, with smooth-talking Canadian journalist Cornelius Laffey landing in Sydney in 1861, seeking “frontier magic”. He meets and woos well-to-do but down-to-earth Sydney girl Jessica Olive, a barrister’s daughter. After the birth of their two children Nadine and George, Cornelius – against his wife’s wishes – whisks the family away up north to Queensland. He finds that the north is indeed still very much frontier territory, and the family disgustedly encounters first-hand the atrocities committed against the indigenous population.

Cornelius’s attempts to report on the slaughter only result in getting him sacked from his job at the local newspaper. The family battles on, barely keeping their heads above water as the children grow up. Nadine, now a beautiful but bored and sulky teenager, falls pregnant to a travelling bushman; Cornelius abandons his family. Nadine also shoots through after the birth of her son Harry, leaving him behind to be brought up by her ever-stoic mother.

While Nadine, who supports herself by joining a brothel, meets a watery fate at the hands of the weather of the tropics, Jessica Olive stays put and forges a career as a hotel proprietress. Her son George acquires land near the (probably fictional) townlet of Mango; eventually he marries Mag, a girl some 20 years his junior who bears him two children, Connie and Will.

After the untimely deaths of his uncle and aunt, Harry and his wife Clytie take charge of the two youngsters. A late-teenaged Connie has a couple of brief wartime dalliances with US servicemen, the latter of which results in a quick, ill-fated marriage and the birth of their son Reever. But the trained nurse returns to her childhood roots and the land, as does, eventually, her brother Will, after his own military stint. Will builds himself a bush sanctuary, but the lifelong loner struggles with his self-imposed isolation and also his sexuality. The young hippies who enter his life and his property – at the well-intentioned behest of his nephew Reever – set in chain a series of events that ultimately ends in tragedy.

Contrasted with the saga of the Laffey family is the story of Bidiggi Tandawarra (Bidgi Mumbler), whose people suffer the destruction of their tribes and land at the hands of the gold-hunting white settlers. Bidiggi strikes up a friendship of sorts with a young George, encouraged by his sympathetic parents. As an adult, Bidgi works as a farmhand at George’s property, while the couple risk themselves to help out members of his family who are having their children forceably removed. Later in the book, Bidgi’s great-grandson Billy is at the heart of a horrific clash – witnessed by Will, who attempts to intervene – at a local pub between a group of vengeful racists and the local blacks. Through her characters, Astley leaves the reader in no doubt whose side she is on.

In short, It’s Raining In Mango is a wonderful book and Astley is an incredible writer.  Like Andy, I will definitely be reading more of her work in the future. And thanks for the recommendation, Dan – on the strength of this, you can suggest authors for Reading Challenge any time.

It still doesn’t make me want to go to back to Queensland in a hurry, though.

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It’s Raining in Mango – Andy spends some time in the Wet with AuntyThea

May 27, 2012

We’re supposed to be on a boat today going to some of Rhodes’s nicest beaches for a swim. Unfortunately we were sold a bodgy ticket by a bodgy ticket seller for a trip that wasn’t happening. Got our money back though, so it’s all good. So I might as well see if I can write something about It’s Raining in Mango, hey. Which is a pity, really, because Thea Astley deserves more than a few hundred words banged out in an internet cafe while I’m on holidays.

To my knowledge this is the first Astley I’ve read; it’s possible I’ve encountered some of her stories before. It’s Raining in Mango is certainly the first of her novels I’ve read and I guarantee it won’t be the last. She’s pretty damn good, I reckon.

As usual I’m not going to try and give you a precis of the story; I’ll leave that to Netty. I don’t have a copy of the book with me and it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, which is criminal I think, so this might be a bit patchy. Described broadly, you might say it’s an alternative fictional history of the hundred or so years prior to the novel’s publication – the year before Australia’s bicentenary. While I think Astley found much to celebrate in Australia’s history, I doubt – on the strength of Mango – that it was what the mainstream thought was worth celebrating. I don’t remember, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Astley was condemned for Mango by some. Its vision of our past is definitely not the one the establishment wanted on display at the time.

The early chapters deal with, among other things, the interaction of north Queensland’s white settlers with the indigenous population. It’s not a pretty picture. Violence and massacre were the name of the game, even in the late 1800s and no doubt well into the 20th. Many people would no doubt dismiss stories of aboriginal massacres as black-armband nonsense, but the area where I spent my teens – Maffra/Sale, in Gippsland – was home to Angus McMillan, a notorious (and probably syphlitic) slaughterer of the local tribes in the 1850s and ’60s. It happened, and it probably happened far more frequently than most people realise. The oppression and dispossession of Australia’s first people is a theme that carries through the book, right to the ’80s where a local policeman turns a blind eye as a crowd of white tradies beat the shit out of a handful of aboriginal guys – and then locks up the victims. It’s a brutal, shocking, and frankly disgusting scene, with a continuity back to the novel’s earliest pages.

If aboriginal massacre was a bit of a taboo subject in 1987 then it wasn’t the only one Astley was prepared to tackle. Her foundation characters (Cornelius and Jessica Olive Laffey, Cornelius the first of a number of suspiciously spineless men in the book, Jessica Olive the first of a number of strong, uncowed women) have a daughter who ends up on the game in a brothel in the Queensland jungle by the side of a river that floods, washing her and her fellow hookers out to sea (not giving anything away here – you’ll understand why if you have a look at the book). Her brother’s children, Connie and Will, share a weird incestuous moment after Will returns from World War II, having admitted to his sister he had an affair with another soldier while on the frontline. If that wasn’t enough to mess with a guy’s head in the ’40s, he then saw his “mate” blown to pieces only metres from him. Still, I can’t say that’d be enough to send me into the arms of my sister. No offence, sis. Anyway.

Massacre, prostitution, incest, same-sex attraction – gutsy stuff, I’d have thought, for a female writer in her 60s at a time of nauseating national fervour. But Astley goes further, bringing her story into the ’80s and introducing a group of hippie environmentalists determined to stop the bulldozing of the Daintree rainforest. The depiction of the hippies is interesting – Astley seems sympathetic to their cause, which makes sense, but the characters themselves are not terribly likable, their contempt for an ageing Will a particularly unpleasant aspect of their groupthink. Will himself is an impressive achievement, his pathetic inadequacies as a human presented with immense compassion.

If I had a copy of the book with me I’d have more to say. Lucky for you I don’t. The only criciticism I can muster is that it sometimes feels more like a collection of interlinking short stories than a novel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Astley’s awesome. I’ll be reading more.

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Lovesong – Andy doesn’t mind the backstreets of Paris, but he preferred the Stone Country

June 26, 2011

Apologies for the delay. As Netty said, I’ve had some issues with my home computer. Even now that the computer’s fixed the problems continue – my post was completed last night, and I hit save… And when I returned to give it one final going over, my edits had been deleted and I was left with the couple of hundred words I’d started out with. So I gave up and drank beer instead.

The computer is only part of the reason for the delay. Alex Miller’s Lovesong, I’m afraid, just doesn’t fill me with the desire to wax lyrical. Nor does it fill me with loathing in the way Taleb’s Black Swan did. Lovesong is a good book – flawed, I feel, and not as good as Journey to the Stone Country – beautifully written, nicely constructed… And yet. It inhabits my literary landscape somewhere the positive side of “Meh”. If someone asked me if they should read Stone Country my response would be an unequivocal “Absolutely.” If someone asked me that about Lovesong I’d probably pull some weird sort of face and say, “Yeah nah, yeah, go for it. If you like.”

So yes, Lovesong is beautifully written and perfectly readable. It’s languorously  paced, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing although I found myself wondering, sometimes, if Miller ever planned to do anything to ratchet up the tension and emotional investment of his readers. He does, but I’m not sure he does enough. Lovesong, obviously, is a love story, and there are elements to distinguish it from any other old love story, although there are perhaps too many elements that make it look a bit too much like any other old love story. I’m not sure, for example, that setting a love story in Paris (sigh) but then placing it specifically in a working-class suburb with a stinky abattoir down the street is quite enough to make it not a love story set in Paris.

That said, Miller’s evocation of working-class Paris is nicely handled. The last time I remember reading of this Paris was George Orwell, although I’m pretty sure memory fails me on that count. It is identifiably Paris, whether you’ve visited it in reality or not; but it’s also slightly alien, with its immigrant workers and their alliances and petty jealousies. And Miller does an excellent job of conjuring modern-day, inner-city Melbourne as well, with its changing streetscapes and its no-smoking-indoors cafes.

Miller uses Sabiha’s desire for a child to good effect in terms of building tension and driving the plot forward – once he gets there – but the domestic scenario itself isn’t terribly convincing. The couple’s love years later in Melbourne, barely glimpsed, is far more impressively portrayed than all those years in Paris. Perhaps this was partly Miller’s intention. Obviously there are unconscious strains in the relationship between John and Sabiha long before they come to the surface, the result of Sabiha’s desperation for a child (specifically a daughter) and John’s apparent lack of emotional engagement with the issue. I’m not sure Miller handles this terribly well. Is John a doofus? Apparently not, at least not when we see him in Melbourne. A doormat, as Netty suggests? Emotionally stunted? Perhaps there are elements of all three, and it is Sabiha’s betrayal that makes him the man we see in the Melbourne chapters. Yet John’s tolerance of the betrayal itself I’m not sure about either – is he really the kind of man who could accept this situation? Perhaps. Or, then again, perhaps I just don’t like books where people who love each other use the word “darling” all the time. Is that a Gen X thing? I don’t know. But “darling”? Fuck off.

I will also admit to a misreading, and a disappointment. Somehow, through the first half of the novel, I came to the mistaken understanding that John and Sabiha’s child, in Melbourne, was a boy. A quick check of the book’s first few pages reveals this, obviously, to be incorrect. Either I misread them or somehow I became confused. Bizarrely, though, I became convinced that Sabiha’s comeuppance would be that she would get her child – but it would be a boy. When I realised my mistake, I have to admit, I was a little let down. Yes, I know I’m strange.

Overall the Melbourne scenes are best, and the ones in which Miller shows a talent for humour I doubt he’s often noted for. I don’t remember Stone Country being especially funny, though again, memory may not serve. The scenes involving Ken’s daughter and her new boyfriend may be slightly slapstick, perhaps even a bit low-brow – but in the context that works perfectly. And Ken’s chats with John are very well constructed. His relationship with John, and with his daughter, are better handled than the relationships 20 years earlier in Paris. The only major weakness in the contemporary scenes comes, regrettably, at the very end. Ken’s insistence on dismissing John’s possible talents as a writer, and his chances of recording his own story, comes across as churlish and smarmy, given that he’s turning the story he’s been told into a book himself. If they’re meant to be ironic and unconsciously self-deprecating… They’re not. They’re meanspirited and, repeated on the book’s last page, left a bad taste in my literary mouth.

But. It’s rare for me to read a book, conscious of what I consider to be its shortcomings, and finish it having nevertheless enjoyed it. I didn’t thoroughly enjoy Lovesong – it’s rather better than a “meh” read, but not as much as I’d hoped – but it was enjoyable, and left me in no doubt as to Miller’s talents. Conditions of Faith and The Ancestor Game, I believe, are pretty impressive. I might read one of those next.