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.
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2009