Autumn Laing by Alex Miller

millerLoosely based on the life of Sunday Reed and her relationship with Sidney Nolan, this surprising novel succeeds at many levels and reaffirms Miller’s great skills and talent. It is probably his most ambitious novel to date with a structure that at first I found difficult but finished the novel in awe of his technique. It’s not often that you have an “aha!” moment when finishing a book. It won’t be surprising to see Sunday’s nephew, Ted Baiilieu, handing out an award to Mr Miller next year.

Written partly as Edith’s journals and partly as narrative, the novel begins in 1991 as Autumn’s journal; Autumn is 83 and a chance sighting of Edith, the artist Pat Donlan’s first wife, compels her to embark on a confessional to atone for what she has done. Autumn is bitter and angry with herself and these emotions dominate. When Arthur Laing brings home the angry young artist Pat Donlan , there is an immediate attraction. The naked desire between Donlan and Autumn and their apparent disregard of their existing relationships is confronting. This desire is not only sensual but reflects a sort of mutual creative dependency. Donlan has eschewed the traditional. The relationship leads to the end of Donlan’s marriage to his beautiful young wife Edith and to a fundamental change in Autumn’s marriage with Arthur.

Autumn and Arthur have become supporters and patrons of a group of young artists and intellectuals; Donlan despises the slavish reverence given to European techniques and movements. What is the alternative? “Make it Australian.” How? “If I knew it I’d be doing it.” For Autumn, this is the fire of her attraction, the possibility that she somehow could be involved in the process. It is here where Miller’s skills become apparent, where we the reader are drawn in as accomplices to their illicit affair, while not approving at least understanding its power and its potential. It is this shift that turns the novel on its head and leads it to its dramatic denouement.

When Donlan decides to go a friend’s station in the highlands west of Rockhampton, Autumn insists on going against the wishes both of Arthur and Pat. It is here in the so called outback that Donlan does learn to “make it Australian”, and Autumn becomes an active collaborator in the new work. Here there is a reference to the speculation that Sunday Reed actually painted some of the works in Nolan’s Ned Kelly series. Miller, here, returns to some of the notions he explored in Journey to the Stone Country – the notion of country and its place in European sensibility. “..the outback is not a place but is the Australian imagination itself.”

One of the initial temptations in embarking on this novel is to fit Miller’s characters to the real life characters of Sunday and John Reed’s world but it is to Miller’s credit that this desire fades and it his characters that truly matter. Autumn Laing is Miller’s most accomplished and ambitious novel to date.

mark-rubboMark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Readings