May 2022

Noted

‘Loveland’

By Helen Elliott
Cover of Robert Lukins’ ‘Loveland’
Robert Lukins’ second novel takes a Brisbane woman to Nebraska, where an inheritance sparks a change in character as well as in fortune

A Brisbane woman, May, inherits from her grandmother 24 acres and a lakeside house in Nebraska. Her name is the only pretty thing about May’s life. She is nearly 40 and working as a nanny to a child whose parents treat and pay her as a person from an underclass. She has been married since late teenage years to a controlling, nasty man, and her son, the one person she hoped would make her life redeemable, is becoming a copy of his father. But inheritance equals agency and the words “new start” flood her mind. She could leave her husband. May quits her job and books a flight to Nebraska, to the place called “Loveland”. The name is unintentionally sardonic.

Robert Lukins’ previous novel, his debut, The Everlasting Sunday, was concerned with male violence in a group of troubled adolescents. Set in England over the freezing winter of 1962, the landscape was as memorable as the characters. Lukins uses landscape to the same cinematic effect in this novel. Alternating chapters of Loveland (Allen & Unwin) are set in America two generations earlier, in the second half of the 1950s, by the lake where a young woman – a girl, really – has been brought to live by her new husband. Her name is Casey and she is to become May’s grandmother. The name of the lake and the fairground where she now lives is “Loveland”, honouring her husband’s family who once made the town prosperous with industry. But the lake became poisoned; the grand hotel, the playgrounds, the entertainments became unused and unwanted. And there was a fire that destroyed everything except the boathouse, which is, astonishingly, exactly as Casey left it more than half a century ago. It is this shipshape and sturdy house that welcomes May. The boathouse has remained intact because Jean, Casey’s old friend, has been keeping it in order for a future she doesn’t believe in.

It is from Jean that May learns Casey wasn’t always the strange and silent grandmother she had overlooked, to the point that when she was told of the inheritance she assumed it was some sort of joke. Casey had property? Casey?

“Mum mops floors. Scrubs people’s toilets,” May says. “I raise awful people’s children. I don’t understand.” What she doesn’t understand is that she’s been given a piece of luck from the most unlikely source.

Lukins has a distinctive style and voice. Precise. Lucid. He has uncanny visual control, writing as a trained artist draws and paints, in dimension, colour, space. He keeps the reader at a distance with his left hand, drawing them into his painted world with his right. Technique like this, showing only what he wants us to see, is unnerving. Loveland’s twin stories of grandmother and granddaughter progress as a series of stills from classic American melodrama. The mid-century film, Casey’s story, is in the hyper-realistic colour of the period; May’s story, in high-resolution detail but with nuanced landscape and interiors, is visually lower key. Both periods have a lurid quality, a glossy surface where nothing is quite as it first appears.

There is murder, horror, violence, and there is also unexpected sweetness and tenderness between certain characters. When the human soul has been battered down every time it tries to emerge, is change possible? What does respect mean to an individual? Or dignity? May finds her inheritance from Casey isn’t just money and land, it is a particularity that gives her the ability to emerge from meekness. But it is possible that the ability to murder is also passed down through generations.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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