Lovesong: Alex Miller

Ken, an ageing writer, returns to Melbourne from Venice to find a new addition to his neighbourhood, a smart pastry shop called Figlia Fiorentino. The proprietor is an attractive middle-aged dark woman: North African, he assumes. Ken’s life appears to be in limbo; his wife has died and he shares the family home with his 38-year-old daughter, professionally but not emotionally successful. His most recent novel, The Farewell, was to be his last. One day at the local baths he observes a middle-aged Australian man playing with a young child, obviously his daughter yet much darker in complexion. He has seen them at the pastry shop. They strike up a conversation and so a friendship begins.

John Patterner has a story that he needs to tell to someone he can trust. It began years ago when, as a young teacher backpacking through Europe, a wrong train landed him in a migrant working-class area of Paris and a Tunisian cafe, Chez Dom. The cafe was run by Houria and her niece Sabiha. John was immediately attracted to Sabiha and returned the next day. The attraction was mutual and Sabiha and John married. When Houria died, John and Sabiha continued to run the cafe, but for both of them their desire to have children was paramount. John, too, wanted to return to Australia with his bride and child and go back to teaching. A move to Australia would not be possible until Sabiha had a child and returned to Tunisia to show her father and family.

As John’s story unfolds, so does Ken’s desire to take it and refashion it. Lovesong is a beautiful novel, very different to Miller’s last four books. In some ways it is reminiscent of Conditions of Faith, which also had French and Tunisian connections, but it is not only the absolutely gripping story of Sabiha and John that makes this book so interesting, but the experience of the ageing writer, who is sucked back into telling a story. Lovesong confirms my view that Miller is one of Australia’s best and most interesting writers.