BOOK REVIEW: Coal Creek (Alex Miller, A&U)

coal creekThe latest novel by two-time Miles Franklin Award-winning novelist Alex Miller is a rural love story that is harsh and beautiful like the Mount Hay bushland that narrator Bobby Blue knows and loves so well. When his father dies, stockman Bobby takes a job as the new town constable Daniel Collins’ offsider. He becomes a friend to the Collins family, especially the eldest daughter Irie, who teaches him to read. There is always a distance between these coastal folk and Bobby, however, which is most apparent through Bobby’s quiet evaluations of Daniel’s abilities in the bush. Irie is the only member of the Collins family who truly attempts to bridge this divide, but when tragedy strikes the limits of friendship are tested. Bobby is a simple and taciturn young man, more at home in the scrub of Coal Creek than at the Collins’ dinner table. His tale meanders through memories of the countryside, the locals, and his own childhood. Because of this subdued mode of storytelling, the tension mounts gradually and when tragedy strikes it is truly, hideously, mesmerising. Reminiscent of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Coal Creek is an evocative and moving novel of the Australian bush.

Portia Lindsay is a former bookseller who now works at the NSW Writers’ Centre

Most mentioned this week

As the year draws to a close, publications are looking back at 2011 and compiling lists of the best books of the year. For a round up of the ‘best of 2011’ lists see Fancy Goods. Appearing on these lists are this week’s most mentioned books, with Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding (Fourth Estate) at the top of the most mentioned chart. Set at Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom, but when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are affected. Also appearing on the most mentioned chart this week are Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing (A&U), Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (Harvill Secker), Jessica Rudd’s Ruby Blues (Text) and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (Corsair)–Media Extra.

Most mentioned this week

Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot (HarperCollins), the third novel from the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Middlesex, is about a love triangle between three Ivy League undergraduates in the early 1980s. It’s followed on the most mentioned chart by Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper (Vintage), which explores the varied histories of its New York-based characters, from the experience of the Nazi regime in Europe to the civil rights movement in the US. Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning A Sense of an Ending (Random House), Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing (A&U) and Kerryn Goldsworthy’s Adelaide (NewSouth) also appeared on the most mentioned chart this week–Media Extra.

Most mentioned this week

An 85-year-old Autumn Laing is moved to write about her affair with Australian artist Patrick Donlon and the near-catastrophic effects their relationship had on those closest to them in Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing (A&U). Another elderly lady, Lola Quinlan, is the protagonist of Monica McInerney’s latest novel. In Lola’s Secret (Penguin), Quinlan has sent her family away for Christmas and invited a number of mystery guests to stay with her instead. On Shakespeare (A&U) is John Bell’s insight into the world of contemporary Shakespearean acting. In Tasmina Perry’s Private Lives (Headline), Anna Kennedy is the lawyer to the stars, hiding their sins from the hungry media. Heather Brooke’s The Revolution Will Be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War (Bloomsbury) also gained a spot on the most mentioned chartMedia Extra.

BOOK REVIEW: Autumn Laing (Alex Miller, A&U)

Fans of Alex Miller’s Lovesong will be pleased to find another love story at the heart of Autumn Laing. As the last surviving member of her once-thriving artistic circle, 85-year-old Autumn is moved to write about her affair with Australian artist Patrick Donlon and the near-catastrophic effects their relationship had on those closest to them. The story skips from present to past, each of Autumn’s written reflections interspersed with comments from her cantankerous older self as she struggles with guilt, loss and the debilities of age. It can be hard to maintain tension across such a disjointed narrative, but for the most part Miller handles it well. He tends to foreshadow the emotional impact of events long before describing the events themselves, which renders the final chapters somewhat anticlimactic. However, his characters are masterfully drawn, and his portrayal of the older Autumn in particular is compassionate yet gently amusing. While this novel is principally concerned with the complexities of human relationships, it is also a fascinating evocation of colonial Australia, when the land was still seen as ‘unwritten’ and artists and intellectuals were struggling to articulate an identity separate from Europe. Alex Miller is living proof of their success.

Marion Rankine is a freelance writer and bookseller at Readings. This review first appeared in the September issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

Most mentioned this week

Charlotte Wood’s Animal People (A&U), an urban love story set over 24 hours, and Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing (A&U), a novel about love, loyalty and creativity, made it to the top of the most mentioned chart this week with the same number of mentions. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (Vintage) is about one man’s discovery of an old manuscript in the 15th century, which fuelled the Renaissance and changed the world. A Private Life (A&U) is Michael Kirby’s collection of reminiscences that reveal his private side. Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot (Fourth Estate) is a novel about Madeleine Hanna, who falls in love with Leonard Morten, a charismatic loner and college Darwinist–Media Extra.

BOOK REVIEW: Lovesong (Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin)

Former acting editor Angela Meyer reviewed Alex Miller’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel Lovesong back in the November issue if Bookseller+Publisher magazine. Here’s what she had to say:

Alex Miller returns to the realms of romance and desire, longing and solitariness, transience and creativity in his new deep, yet playful novel Lovesong; sure to appeal widely through its astute charm and emotional essence. The bulk of the story features John and Sabiha, an Australian man and Tunisian woman who meet in Paris where Sabiha helps run a restaurant with her widowed aunt, Houria. The imbalances of even the most loving relationships are explored through John and Sabiha—longing for distant homelands, compromise, and difficulty conceiving. Miller’s soft, unhindered prose really comes alive when the complications of secret desires and longing are introduced. The secret inner life is a common theme in Miller’s work, which always holds fascination. The other parts where descriptions are apt, are expressions of solitariness—both loneliness and an aloneness that is by selection. What’s different about this novel is that the main story is told through another character, Ken, an ageing writer in Melbourne, who meets the couple later in life and is drawn to their story due to the ‘sadness in the depths of [Sabiha’s] dark brown eyes’. The author, Ken, is as such admitting that he seeks the story behind the story, the secrets behind the façade of everyday life. This structure is also cheeky in a way, as Ken quotes Lucien Freud: ‘Everything is autobiographical, and everything is a portrait’. Ken’s last book was called The Farewell and he wondered why critics never equated it with his retirement (Miller’s own last book was The Landscape of Farewell), but he does find that he can’t ‘not write’, and thus seeks (and constructs) the story of John and Sabiha. Ken, and also the reader, then get to live out someone else’s life and history, desires, and indiscretions. You could read it as a statement about fiction itself—derived from truths of the self, of people known and met, your own and others’ lives; but also from burning curiosity (the spark for the story being the sadness in Sabiha’s eyes). ‘My life is in my books’ notes Ken towards the end, an admission that the reader is free to interpret the work of the writer as coming from their own secret inner life. The intertwining stories are told with gentleness, some humour, some tragedy and much sweetness. Miller is that rare writer who engages the intellect and the emotions simultaneously, with a creeping effect.

Angela Meyer is a writer, blogger and former acting editor of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. This review first appeared in the November 2009 issue. You can read the April 2010 issue online here.