Alex Miller, Lovesong

Alex Miller, Lovesong

Lovesong bookcover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

Lovesong is my first Alex Miller novel, which is a bit embarrassing, really, given that he has won the Miles Franklin Award twice.

John was the quiet type … Except when he was telling me his story. Even then there was something quiet and private in the way he spoke about himself and Sabiha; as if he was telling himself the story; going over it to find its meaning for himself. Looking for something he’d missed when it was happening to him.

As you can probably tell from this quote, Lovesong is one of those story-within-a-story novels. Its basic plot is fairly simple. John, an Australian, tells the story of his life in Paris with his Tunisian wife, Sabiha, to Ken, a retired novelist. Retired? Well, so he says, but can he resist a good story when he hears one?

John and Sabiha’s love story is not exactly straightforward, which is foreshadowed early in the novel when Ken first meets Sabiha and notes “a sadness in the depths of her dark brown eyes”. He begins to wonder about “her story”. Adding a little complexity to this is a loose parallel in Ken’s life. He lives with his 38-year-old daughter, Clare, who during the novel starts a love affair of her own. Sabiha is, coincidentally, about 38 when the “crisis” in her life occurs. There are other parallels in the novel, such as Sabiha’s aunt Houria and her marriage to Dom, and Ken’s marriage to his wife Marie. Again, these are loose. They provide depth and perspective rather than the direct commentary that parallels often seem to do.

This is a surely structured novel. Miller manages to be simultaneously subtle and obvious so that you are conscious of being led along, but you are not always sure where to or what it might mean. Early in the novel, Clare tells her father that “Love is never simple”. A little later, Sabiha’s father reflects on his daughter and wonders, rather more prophetically than he realises, what “makes some people so different from others that they cannot share a common fortune with them”.  Alongside these early thematic hints is a whole slew of comments about story-telling and writing, about story-telling as “confession”, as “craving for absolution”, as, in fact, catharsis. In other words, the novel is also self-consciously metafictional, which is not surprising given that the first person narrator, Ken, is a novelist.

Meanwhile, there is John and Sabiha’s actual story – and again, the plotting is sure. We learn early that Sabiha wants just one child, “her child. There was only one”. And we learn of her closeness to her maternal grandmother. These two things, dropped lightly in the book, play a significant role in the development of the plot.

The novel is full of irony, starting with the title and its romantic connotations being undercut by other sorts of songs. And there is this from Sabiha’s aunt Houria:

Don’t try sorting out the rest of your life tonight, darling. You’ll see, it’ll all work out in the most unexpected ways.

This is doubly ironic because, eventually, Sabiha does attempt to sort out her life, rather than let it work out, and the result, while giving her what she wants, is also not what she expected. What’s that adage? Be careful what you wish for? And yet, that’s not what the novel is about. It’s not a cautionary tale. Rather, without being coy, it’s a meditation on the mystery and power of love – and, I would say, on innocence and experience in its many guises.

But it’s about other things too, such as the importance of home and place. Both Sabiha and John spend much of their lives living away from their respective homes. Ken, at the novel’s start, has just returned from spending time in Venice and is trying to decide whether to return. It’s also about Life – and the inevitability of change: “Change being forced on them, even as they stood still”. John feels it, Ken feels it.

But again and again, we come back to stories and storytelling. Partway through the novel Ken thinks:

There were things I could have added to his story, but I didn’t want to make it up this time. The truth is … I have never really liked making it up. My imagination, such as it is, needs the facts to feed off. I could see the directions I might go in with John and Sabiha’s story, but I resisted. I wanted to hear the truth from John.

And yet, it is not so simple as it sounds. At the end, he wonders:

I had her story now, but it is one thing to have a story and another to write it. How was I to articulate the delicate complexities that must give weight and depth and beauty to her story, those things that most easily elude us?

I found Lovesong an engrossing read. Its writing engaged me, it’s accessible, and it tells a great story, while also exploring the art and meaning of storytelling. I am left though with one question: Whose story is it to tell?

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also liked this book. You can read her review here.

Alex Miller
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2009
ISBN: 9781742371290

13 thoughts on “Alex Miller, Lovesong

  1. This sounds like an interesting read. I like stories within stories although there are so many of them that the author has to be pretty good to pull them off these days. Lovely review, a pleasure to read.
    Thanks indeed for sharing

  2. must admit alex miller new name to me ,altough don’t read many aussie writers winton ,carey ,mahlouf have read always looking for new names ,all the best stu

  3. Hannah, thanks for popping by. I like stories within stories too – since I’m reading fiction, I think it’s rather interesting/fun/challenging when author self-consciously discuss it. As you can tell, I think Miller does it well – I’m not sure though, at the end, how far he wants us the question the right to take other people’s stories. I haven’t seen many reviews tackling that issue but I think he wants us to.

    Stu, thanks too for popping by. If you like Winton, Carey and Malouf, you will probably like Miller. They are all quite different of course but if you like that breadth, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this too. In my copy is “praise” for his previous book and one of those “praises” comes from Sebastian Barry. I think that makes sense as Barry too seems to have a quiet, lyrical but accessible style like you find here.

    • I think he is … but from what I’ve been hearing he certainly isn’t out there the way Winton, Carey and co are. Do you know the journal Antipodes? It’s published in America and focuses on Australian (and maybe New Zealand?) literature. I heard an interview with the editor on the radio the other day. I think he might be DC based.

    • Yes, Stefanie, I would like to, particularly his Miles Franklin winner, Journey to the Stone Country. That one has intrigued me for a while. I had a good chat about this book today with a good friend who, coincidentally, also just finished it. It was nice to tease out some of the issues and feel we felt similarly about a lot of it. She too hadn’t read anything else my him.

  4. This does sound like an interesting read. I’ve avoided it for awhile because it’s the current rave so I’ll give it a go down the track. I’ve never read Alex Miller either, but I did hear him speak at the opening night of the Wheeler Centre which was quite fun. I think it takes courage and a special sort of confidence to title one’s book with ‘Lovesong’ and not have it marked as a sappy romance.

    • Yes, it really is an interesting read. Was he a good speaker? Interestingly, Elizabeth Jolley’s last (I think) novel is also called Lovesong, and knowing her it won’t be a sappy romance either. It’s in my TBR pile and I should read it to compare shouldn’t I?

  5. I have to admit that I had never heard of Miller, it does sound like an interesting read though. I guess there’s only one way to find out if I’d like his books..

    • LOL you got it Iris! He’s clearly not well known overseas – it’s amazing how many of Australia’s top award-winning authors are not known OS. Blogging is great for sharing and learning these things isn’t it?

  6. Whose story indeed. Like you, I’ve been thinking a lot about the metafictional elements of the story, and am unsettled by what it says about a writer’s actions and our ownership of our own stories. Good review.

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