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Love and pastry


Alex Miller: Lovesong. Allen & Unwin, RP $32.95. ISBN: 9781742371290. Online

Lovesong by Alex MillerLovesong is a novel that explores its own wellsprings. The situations of its characters and its locations refract Alex Miller's own experience. Ken, the narrator is an ageing, widowed writer who listens to the story of a man whom he meets at a local pastry shop. The story rekindles his own desire to write another novel.

Such intense self-reference could produce a clever, hermetic novel. But Lovesong is simple and lucid, its complexities those that a humane eye will recognise in any human life.

The novel explores the variations on home, homelessness, homesickness, and not being at home. Its central figures, John and Sabiha, are both away from their homes in Australia and Tunis respectively.

They meet in a pastry shop near a Paris abattoir. For the immigrant workers, mainly Tunisian, the café is a home away from home. From its upstairs room can be seen the lights of the Eiffel tower. But this is a world away, and Sabiha never visits it. John and Sabiha meet, fall in love and run the shop for 16 years. They are held in Paris but drawn in their different ways to their own homelands and families.

The energy of the novel comes from Sabiha. The dramatic and tragic events that lead John, Sabiha and her little daughter Houria to establish a pastry shop in Melbourne arise from Sabiha's desperate desire for a child. The working out of her desire puts into play the idea of home for all those involved.

They include Ken, who lives in what was once home. His daughter has returned home after the breakdown of a relationship. Finding and making a home are not simple activities; the apparent tranquillity associated with home is the result of opposing forces held together under great tension.

This limpidity resulting from stress characterises Alex Miller's novels. It is perhaps illuminated by the distinction, popular in classical literary theory and revived by Nietzche, between the Dionysian and the Apollonian.

In classical literature, the Dionysian is associated with the disruptive, spontaneous, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, often foreign, anarchic, liminal, ecstatic, and excessive. It is often embodied in women.

The Apollonian is associated with the movement to form, order, moderation, with giving shape and marking boundaries. When they collide in Greek myth and drama the results are often tragic. Yet art may require both imaginative excess and discipline in shaping appropriate form.

The interplay between these polarities illuminates the world of Miller's novels, and also the relationship between his disciplined prose and his capacity to offer hospitality to the wildest conceits through which people come to life.

Sabiha is a Dionysian figure. Passionate, fearless in following her heart, ready to do anything to bring to life the child who will complete her life, she is the source of life and energy in the Chez Dom. She makes pastries that take people into a world that transcends their daily life in an alien city, and is central to the shop's hospitality.

She also draws others by her own vitality and exuberance. John Patterner, an Australian teacher travelling abroad chances on the shop and is immediately won by her. His name suggests his Apollonian role. He buys and fetches, shapes the structures that make space for Sabiha's magic, and draws life from her.

The tragedy of the story lies in the implacable strength of her desire to bear a child. Her effect on Bruno, an Italian butcher totally devoted to his wife and family, is destructive. It leads to his death and the destruction of all that connected people at the Chez Dom.

When John and she leave Paris and settle in Melbourne, Ken is first struck by the contrast between the sadness in her eyes and her gift for making people at home in the shop. He later draws life from her story, as he hears it from John. He can dream of writing another novel based on the story, and puts himself again into play in the unpromising world of his own home.

Like Vita McLelland in the author's previous novel, Landcape of Farewell, Sabiha is the source of the energy that generates the plot and the interactions between the players. Miller has a rare gift for representing strong women.

His larger gift is for hospitality. His eye is deeply humane, accepting the wildness and ultimate incommunicability of human beings, and recognising the consequences of driven behaviour. In his world a home is something that is never comfortable, never simply given. It is like a mobile, held in tension by the weight of the love and ultimate unknowableness of the people who form it.

Lovesong is like one of Sabiha's pastries — it takes you into a world that is beyond your experience, but encourages you to notice and be open to the ordinary world and people around you.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Alex Miller: Lovesong. Allen & Unwin, RP $32.95. ISBN: 9781742371290.



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew. I was undecided about this book but after reading your review I'm off to purchase a copy. I'm new to Australia, unfamiliar with many of its authors, and have only read one other of Miller's books. Again, thanks.

Janet Marsh | 26 November 2009  

Great write up. I heard Alex Miller speak about this at the Newtown Writers Festival. I was as struck by his talk about the moment he gets his inspiration for a book, as the book itself. So I bought it, loved it, would recommend to anyone. Not surprisingly, left me homesick to be back in Melbourne though!

Regina | 27 November 2009  

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