‘Lovesong’ by Alex Miller

17930610One of Australia’s most consistent writers, Alex Miller has, in Lovesong, produced one of his finest books.

A haunting melancholia pervades, a poignancy almost too painful to witness as John Patterner tells the tale of a married couple living a life of love, dreams, compromise, deceit and almost unbearable sadness. It is his life, shared with the beautiful Sabiha and their young daughter, Houria.

The two meet in a café in Vaugirard, an off-the-tourist-track working-class neighbourhood in Paris. Sabiha, newly arrived from Tunisia, is living with her recently widowed aunt, Houria, owner of the Chez Dom. John enters the café having taken the wrong train to Chartres and a sudden rainstorm sends him searching for shelter. Spending a few months travelling away from his native Australia, John’s original plan was to spend only a few days in the French capital. Meeting Sabiha changes all that.

It’s almost twenty years before John returns to Australia and its here the book’s narrator, Ken, a successful novelist, first meets him and, over time, hears this plangent story.

Gentle, lyrical and poetic in its telling, a tragic love story unfolds among the fragrant spices and sweet pastries of Chez Dom with its predominantly male migrant North African customers searching for a home away from home. An unlikely yet contented marriage, running the café after the death of Houria, is overshadowed by the lack of the daughter Sabiha is convinced has always been promised her. Their lives are in limbo: the two have agreed they will return to Australia only after their daughter has met her Tunisian grandfather. Receiving news that her father is dying, the idea that Sabiha might die childless pushes her into taking action with tragic and unforeseen consequences.

A deceptively simply written narrative in the form of a therapeutic confession, Lovesong contains many hidden (and not so hidden) depths about love, relationships, loneliness, ageing. But it’s also a gift – Ken himself has ambitions for the tale with its believable characters who are vulnerable yet resilient, fragile yet tough when needed.

Shortlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin Award (Miller’s sixth), Lovesong lost out to Peter Temple and Truth.

 

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‘Landscape of Farewell’ by Alex Miller

landscape-of-farewellA meditative and wholly engaging novel, Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell is the story of knowledge and understanding – of oneself, of the past, of the land, of ageing and of friendship.

Recently widowed, German academic Max Otto is looking to end his own life: his valedictory public lecture to be followed by a deadly mix of pills and alcohol in his Hamburg apartment. Only he had not foreseen the presence of Professor Vita McLelland – a feisty visiting Indigenous Australian academic from Sydney. She challenges Max and his less than impressive final words.

Unexpectedly, through an unplanned post-lecture discussion, a level of understanding between them evolves, resulting in an invitation to speak at a conference in Sydney a few months later. Vita also wants Max to spend time with her uncle, Dougald, at his home in the bush.

A deep, understated friendship evolves between Max and Dougald. In simple, rustic surrounds, the two settle into a life of easy domesticity with few words and long periods of silence. But Dougald also draws Max into his own history – and in particular that of Gnapun, his grandfather, a fabled warrior. As we are told the story of Gnapun leading a group of men into massacring Christian settlers a century earlier, so Max finds himself reflecting on his father and the never-asked question of his role in the Second World War.

Memories of his childhood come to the surface – an absent father, the one-legged uncle to whom he was sent off to help on the farm with the advent of the war – providing a suspended sense of time as Miller weaves us between the present and both men’s past. And, as with Max’s uncle, desperate for his nephew to understand “It is the soil of our fathers,” his uncle would rage, shaking his fist at him. “This soil is us! … We are this soil.”, so Dougald talks of the high country where the Old People dwell in the rocks, the soil, the trees of nature. Yet Dougald celebrates that past, whereas Max has long buried it. It is in the writing of Dougald’s story that Max recognises we are all “members of this same murdering species”.

Landscape of Farewell is a haunting novel full of incident yet simultaneously meditative. The two old men move at their own pace, yet still cover a great deal. A large part of the novel may well find Max feeding the hens or goat but then the two octogenarians also clamber steep isolated escarpments in Dougald’s home country, his first visit for decades. It is this journey into country that provides both men their resolution of reconciliation and redemption. Dougald may pass on to join the Old People, but Max is now free, back in Hamburg, to venture into ‘the darkness of his family’s silence.”

Alex Miller’s eighth novel was shortlisted for the 2008 Miles Franklin Award but he lost out to Steven Carroll and The Time We Have Taken. Miller has won the Miles Franklin on two separate occasions – in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and in 2003 for Journey to the Stone Country.