Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Passage of Love, by Alex Miller

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Alex Miller's new novel is a work of autobiographical fiction that concentrates on Australian life in the 1950s and 60s.

Robert Crofts, who left his homeland in England at the age of sixteen, has been working as a stockman in Queensland. One day he decides to travel south to Melbourne and try his luck there. On his first night he sleeps rough on Caulfield's train platform. The station master tells him of a sympathetic nearby boarding house he should try and so he presents himself, with no job and no money. The landlady, a no-nonsense type of woman, takes him on nonetheless. Robert finds work, starts to make some friends and has an affair with the elusive Wendy, a writer for a socialist newspaper. He falls in love with her (more likely lust), but she is a free spirit and can't be pinned down.

The relationship with Wendy ends in frustration and disappointment, but then someone at the boarding house introduces Robert to Lena, a middle-class girl. The two fall into a problematic relationship and eventual marriage. Lena has unresolved psychological problems and is probably anorexic (her stark thinness and refusal to eat much is often noted). When her mother suddenly dies of a stroke she actually jumps for joy, declaring she's free at last.

A large part of The Passage of Love (it runs to 580 pages) covers Robert and Lena's troubled, almost loveless marriage. Once they're married, Lena runs off to Italy, against Robert's will. When he eventually finds her, she's a mess. From there on the marriage is almost sexless. What keeps them together is a shared pain: in a strange way they're both broken people. Their sufferings are only alleviated once they both find fulfillment in art, Robert through his writing and Lena through her drawing.

The first half of The Passage of Love is riveting. Miller does a terrific job of evoking the uncertainties of youth and the loneliness of being alone in a new place. He breathes life into Melbourne in the late 1950s and early 1960s with his descriptions of its streets, stores and various characters. His confrontation with a fellow boarder and university teacher is gut wrenching in its stark rendering of class differences. Miller even includes an Indigenous voice in Robert's friend and fellow stockman from Queensland, Frankie. We learn of the humliations Aboriginal people had to put up with in 50s Australia.

The third act of the novel tapers off a bit as it concentrates on the troubled relationship between Robert and Lena. Sometimes it feels like the story is meandering. Theirs is not an inspiring love affair and the reader is tossed back and forth as Robert and Lena try to figure out where they stand with each other. There's no strong commitment, just a lot of uncertainty and pain. It's also hard to decipher exactly what has made the middle-class Lena so emotionally and psychologically closed in.

Despite these caveats The Passage of Love is a very enjoyable read, with a lot of astute observations and well developed characters with complex inner lives. Alex Miller writes with the simplicity and directness of a Tolstoy.

The Passage of Love, by Alex Miller. Published by Allen & Unwin. ISBN: 9781760297343 RRP: $32.99

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