'Lovesong' by Alex Miller
Allen & Unwin, 272pp; $39.99
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“In tragic life,” wrote George Meredith in Modern Love, a savage poetic account of the breakdown of his marriage, “No villain need be! Passions spin the plot.” Alex Miller’s eighth novel also tells the story of a marriage, in this instance between a young Australian and a Tunisian immigrant. And Miller, too, discovers dramatic tension in the old inconsonance of men’s and women’s desires, while exploring the fresh difficulties that emerge when a couple is divided between home and exile, old world and new.
But unlike Meredith, that archetype of wounded Victorian masculinity, Miller does not rage against the vileness of womankind or the hypocrisy of marriage as an institution. The fictional husband he creates in Lovesong is adoring and complaisant, his wife a model of loving devotion. Both are largely innocent of the fateful turn in their conjugal history. Indeed, however full of human frailty and confusion the cast of Lovesong may be, they are, with a single exception, people without malice.
Despite the atmosphere of decency that prevails, Miller maintains an animal wariness for false sentiment. His narrator, Ken, is a retired novelist and widower, who shares the family home in suburban Melbourne with his unmarried, middle-aged daughter. Dour, gently acerbic, not a little enamoured with the thought of his own demise, Ken’s voice is hardly naive. And yet, when his local drycleaner is replaced by a patisserie run by an exotic, dark-skinned woman, he is beguiled by her beauty, poise and melancholy air.
Ken soon befriends the woman’s Australian husband, John Patterner, a teacher who has spent many years overseas. As the relationship between the two men grows, John opens up to the writer, recounting episodes from his life over long lunches at a local café, the Paradiso. Ken’s dormant authorial drive is awakened by the tale John tells of a young Aussie traveller who, during a storm, takes shelter in a North African restaurant in an unfashionable corner of Paris. There, he encounters a young woman named Sabiha, who has recently arrived in France from her desert home to support the café’s proprietress, her grieving widowed aunt. These anecdotal flashbacks begin as sepia-tinged asides but soon dominate the novel. And though we read these events through notes that Ken tentatively makes of their meetings, the narrator of these sections is neither of these men, as there is a greater omniscience concerning Sabiha’s innermost self than any single character’s perspective would permit.
The usual remark to be made about novels that rely on simplicity to generate their effects is that such clarity is deceptive. But with an author such as Miller – whose prose reads clear as running water, and whose insights into the ethics of storytelling, the sadness of ageing and the motions of the heart are laid out with such directness – perhaps simplicity really is the aim and the end. It is the intricate yet enduring mechanism of a successful marriage that is truly complex; Miller’s fiction is the pellucid medium through which that complexity gleams.