The idea that small decisions can have enormous consequences offers great scope for novelists. Decisions that seem trivial at the time, but in retrospect change everything. If only I had/had not taken that train, picked up the phone, turned left instead of right...
In my November feature book, Autumn Laing, the meeting between the protagonist Autumn and the artist Pat Donlon was the sum of several small decisions - a tip from a receptionist, a missed train, an invitation to dinner. The consequences are both thrilling and devastating.
Pat and Autumn are soon caught up in a torrid affair, bound by a powerful lust for each other and for art. They almost simultaneous attract and repel each other. Pat can be arrogant, cruel, sneering and consumed by an ugly ambition, yet Autumn is compelled to help him realise his gift. She yearns to collaborate with him in creating a new and uniquely Australian form of modern art, unhindered by the European style and techniques dominating the local art scene at the time.
Australian art is one of author Alex Miller's great loves, and it shows. Some of the best passages in the book come when his cast of intelligent characters debate ideas about why art matters, the "untouched silence" at its heart and what it means to be an artist. "Art is a woman," says Autumn to Pat at their first meeting. "She wants everything or nothing. She sees everything else as betrayal."
While the story of Autumn and Pat has many parallels with the real-life story of artist Sidney Nolan and arts patron Sunday Reed, the characters are fully realised and firmly Miller's own. Miller beautifully captures Pat's single-minded determination to make art his way. Pat paints in an obsessive fervour, as if trying to capture an image "as fugitive as a dream on waking", and delights when "educated people" are rendered speechless by his work. His hunger and torment and the intensity of the passion between himself and Autumn are convincingly realised.
Miller writes in the afterword that his interest lies in the "tangled web of the interior life... these private shadow grounds of contradiction and elaboration beyond fact and outward appearance." In these the novel is rich.
The novel switches voice from chapter to chapter, from an elderly Autumn writing in 1991, to an omniscient narrator in the 1930s. The book is supposed to be Autumn's journal, so at times I found myself wondering how she could have known so much.
But perhaps that's to miss the point. The book is only her version of events, her quest for atonement. And as the terrible price of her betrayal was gradually revealed, my
empathy for her cantankerous older self grew.
The young Autumn is passionate, headstrong and ambitious. The older Autumn may be bitter but she has not lost her sense of humour, with her abhorrence of her reduced physical capabilities, her cutting remarks for her patronising caregivers and her marked sense of isolation now that all her dear friends are dead. What was the point of it all, she wonders, as the prospect of death signals the coming irrelevance of what was once so all-consuming.
This is a passionate story by a powerful writer, a tale of betrayal, jealousy, guilt, forgiveness, life, love and art. Best read with a book of modern Australian landscapes by your side.
Next week look out for Bronwyn's review of Rangatira by Paula Morris and then I'll be introducing my December feature book, Animal People by another Australian author, Charlotte Wood. Click here to enter our reader giveaway and be in to win a copy of both Animal People and Bronwyn's December read, The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. You'll need to tell us what you think was the best book of 2011, and why. Entries close Friday 9 December 2011.
- HERALD ONLINE