Tuesday, November 3, 2009

alex miller, lovesong

Lovesong is just about as sad as you’d expect a book called Lovesong to be. Set mostly in a Tunisian cafe in Paris called Chez Dom, and partially in modern-day Carlton, it tells the story of Tunisian Sabiha and Australian John, who meet in Chez Dom one day and instantly see their futures in each other. What actually happens is reality, and that is what the basis of this lovely story is.

One of the strangest things about this tale is that by the end, not much had essentially happened. I could spoiler this book up for you in a single sentence. And you’d be angry, and rightfully so, as despite the slow burn of this story, I still relished it. I initially wasn’t that thrilled by the concept, because the idea of reading another love story set in Paris made me feel a tad queasy. Yes, part of this may have to do with the fact I haven’t been to Europe and I may be bitter that Melbourne isn’t the City of Love (just the City of Gangsters, Wearing Too Much Black and Stealing All of the Country’s Sporting Events.) But I thought I’d have a go at it anyway, and I’m glad I took the time.

There’s something about Miller’s writing that I find comforting, something warm I can lose myself in. He gives you enough detail to put you in the place he describes, but not too much to detract from what is going on. Food tastes wonderful and the weather is biting or warm. There are good books out there that are difficult to read; this is not one of them.

An issue I have with many books (and films, and so on) is the leap of faith you’re required to take when at first you are shown a relationship at its beautiful, blossoming beginning, where all the hope in the world is in their raised blood pressure and shy smiles—and then plunged into the same relationship twenty years later, with everything stagnant and a deep undercurrent of sadness. The author can tell you repeatedly through the musings of their characters that the love they have is still strong and the relationship important, but it sometimes doesn’t ring true, and that did occasionally happen in Lovesong. When Sabiha and John meet at Sabiha’s aunt Houria’s cafe, everything is wonderful; a few pages later they are much older, running Chez Dom themselves, and prone to long silences and thoughtful narration. It’s a painful relationship to watch, and I’m not denying that this is the reality of relationships: that they can plateau. But without properly starting their relationship, despite venturing into it again two years after their meeting, I felt that there were some issues—Sabiha was so narrow-minded about her needs, they had so little in common, and disagreed over where in the world to live—that their relationship wasn’t always convincing enough to me.

I still read this whole book and looked forward to my lunch breaks so I could continue; the soft characters were fascinating to read about and I wanted to know how it ended. It is a tragedy and a happy ending; it is everything, and that is what life is.

Running alongside John and Sabiha’s story is the one of modern-day retired writer Ken, languishing in his Carlton flat and wondering about the family who have just moved from France to open a pastry shop next door to him. When he befriends them, he can’t help but listen to their love story and want to write it down, while his own adult daughter tentatively starts her own love story in Ken’s flat. Writing about writers can put me on edge, unless you’re Stephen King and prone to making them die in ingenious splatty ways, but Ken’s presence is light enough not to overcrowd the plot.

Alex Miller is a dahling of the awards circle, and you’re bound to see this in the Miles Franklin shortlist, so I’ll advise you to read it now so come awards time you can say, “Lovesong? Oh, that old thing? Yes, I suppose it was quite good, wasn’t it,” and inspect your nails, sighing. It’s what I’ll be doing.

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