The Tivington Nott, by Alex Miller

Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Alex Miller left his native England for Australia at age 17. As an author, his 11 novels (this is only my third but I intend to get to them all over time) have concentrated on telling Australian stories — but he never forgot his roots.

The last one reviewed here (Watching The Climbers On The Mountain) can certainly be read as an autobiographical story — set on a cattle station in Queensland, it features an 18-year-old stockboy, newly arrived from England.

The Tivington Nott, first published in 1989, is even more personal — and unlike the rest of Miller’s works, it is set in England. Here is an explanation from the author, included in the 2005 Allen & Unwin version that I read:

All the episodes [which take place in 1952], not just a few of them, may be traced back to actual events and experiences in my life, and in the lives of the people, and some of the animals, portrayed here. There was such a stag as the Tivington nott, a horse such as Kabara, a cocky Australian who owned him, a farmer for whom I laboured for two years and who had rightly earned the nickname, ‘Tiger’, a labourer by the name of Morris with whom I lived, a harbourer who would know himself in the figure of Grabbe, and a huntsman of the Devon and Somerset who broke his neck while chasing a hind one winter afternoon. I loved them all, and loved the landscape they inhabited. Briefly, they were my reality.

In some ways, I could stop this review right there since it is a perfect summary of the book (note in particular “I loved them all”) — perhaps the addition of a personal opinion that Miller tells this story exceptionally well would provide the best conclusion. And in offering that enthusiastic endorsement, let me say it shows that Miller overcame a number of well-ingrained, going-in prejudices.

Firstly, I’m not a fan of memoirs, fictional or otherwise. Too often, I find them to be self-indulgent, manipulated versions of history — I’d rather the author let his or her imagination run wild instead of offering a sanitized version of what happened. Miller disposed of this personal bias from the opening paragraph: The Tivington Nott may be based on real events that Miller lived through but the author applies himself conscientiously and completely to developing a fair portrait of what he experienced, including the people (and animals) that were involved.

Secondly, the elements of the story lie far from my interests. Until I picked up the book, I did not know what a “nott” is (a stag without antlers, if you share my ignorance). While I knew elements of rural English society hunted foxes to their death while mounted and chasing a pack of hunting dogs, I wasn’t aware that in parts of the country this also involved deer. I can say with certainty that if I lived in England, then or now, I would be firmly anti-hunt. Once the characters have been introduced, The Tivington Nott is the story of a hunt — to Miller’s credit, I was sympathetically engrossed in the narrative throughout.

Let me offer an extended excerpt where Miller introduces both himself and some of the characters noted above as in illustration of how the author both offers insight of those around him and places himself suitably in the picture:

Even though he is a real grinder I did not mind working for the Tiger. He is not just an uncomplicated farmer. His hard good sense about managing the farm deserts him when it comes to the matter of hunting the wild deer on Exmoor. He fears this passion as a disability and is forever guarding himself against it. Everything he does is complicated for him by this duality in his nature. He tried to get me to address him as ‘Master’ when I first came here from London two years ago. It is the tradition and Morris [the senior farm labourer] abides by it. I respect traditions and have one or two of my own. One of them is not calling people ‘Master’. I could see how much it meant to Tiger to have me conform, however, so I did have a go at it, just to be fair. But it was no good. I couldn’t look him in the eye and say it. I wasn’t being stubborn. There was more to it than that.

Tiger is just a tenant farmer and, as noted, a “grinder” who works his staff hard. But when it comes to the hunt, as that excerpt indicates, his self-image becomes more one of “nearly a squire”. His class is undoubtedly a cut or two below the other hunters, but in both dress and behavior, he tries to narrow the gap. The “grinder” becomes a bit of a sycophant.

What sets the drama off is the arrival in the neighborhood of the “cocky Australian”, Alsop, and his impressive hunting stud, Kabara. Like Tiger, Alsop has pretensions to become one of the upper, hunting classes — unlike Tiger, he has the money to follow through on them.

Alsop’s plan comes apart early in the book when he crashes his car into a rural stone wall and disables himself. He needs someone to look after Kabara and looks to Tiger, whose own hunting stock consists of two, not impressive, geldings. Sensing that Alsop will need to sell the stud (at almost any price) Tiger accepts — and turns the stud over to the narrator.

Miller proves to be an excellent hand at this, exclusively because he lets Kabara have his head and only offers gentle guidance — the stud is more than willing to go along with this bargain. The narrator is fully aware that Tiger, with his “dominate the horse” approach to riding and hunting, will face immediate disaster if he ever mounts the horse — the horse will definitely best the man.

All of which sets up the hunt that occupies most of the 167 pages of the novel. Tiger agrees to take Kabara along as his “second” horse, tended by the narrator. But he instructs Miller to hunt the horse hard, rather than just standing by — he wants the horse to return from the hunt exhausted in order to lower the price he will offer Alsop.

All of that suggests a narrative of simple lives in a closed society that has its own complicated set of hierarchy and rules, all of which the author develops with careful precision. The narrator is certainly an active participant but you can tell from the start that Miller, when he actually lived these events, was every bit as much an acute observer as he was a part of the action.

Miller’s prose is definitely one of the reasons this endeavour succeeded so well for me. For the most part, it is tight and almost journalistic — but when he decides to divert into extended description of nature or action, he does it perfectly.

His eye for characters, and the ability to bring them to life, is equally impressive. This novel, particularly when we get to the hunt, involves a number of individuals from very different classes in a community. Miller finds the ideal balance between sympathetic and critical portrayal to bring both the individuals and broader community to impressive life.

Discipline in writing, discipline in character and, perhaps most impressively, discipline in length — too many authors who can deliver on the first two often fail on that final one. The Tivington Nott is a longish novella/short novel (I read it in one extended sitting) that does not have a single extraneous word. On more than one occasion while reading the book, I thought of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, another gem of a book (with a somewhat similar story) whose author knew exactly what it would take to tell his story.

That makes Alex Miller three for three for me (Autumn Laing is the one I have not yet mentioned). While the three have some similarities, they are very different novels — although each one truly showcases a rare talent for prose. This Australian sure can write and I am delighted to know that I have eight more novels to go (and he is still publishing — yeah!). Stay tuned.

2014 kimbofo While I have an ongoing Alex Miller project, I saved this novel for this month as part of Kimbofo at Reading Matters May project encouraging the reading of Australian and New Zealand books. For full details on the project (and links to reviews from others who are participating), click here. I hope to get to at least two other Antipodean books before the month is out.

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13 Responses to “The Tivington Nott, by Alex Miller”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    I’m pleased to see that you reviewed another Alex Miller. I bought a novel after reading one of your earlier reviews (Autumn laing) but I haven’t read it yet. I’ll read that one before buying a second.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      This one was his second and in some ways that shows. I started with Autumn Laing myself (which is number nine of 11) and it is definitely more complex than this one — although increased complexity does not always make for a better novel.

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    I bought this book when I saw it reviewed on Kim’s Reading Matters blog – and I can’t believe I haven’t got round to reading it because Alex Miller is one of my favourite authors, and it’s really interesting to go back to the early novels of a major author to see how his career began.
    (He’s a really nice person too: I approached him when I first began my Meet an Aussie Author series, never imagining that a major author like him would find the time to participate, but he did, what a gentleman!)

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      While it is not his first novel, I would see it as a kind of “bridge” novel for him — setting down that English growing-up experience serving as marking the end of that part of this life. Except for Autumn Laing, I’m trying to read his novels in order so it was an apt bit of the journey for me.

      I’m delighted to hear he is a gentleman as well (fine writing often does not necessarily mean fine personality, as we both know).

  3. writereads Says:

    Great review and thank you for letting me know that this is Australia and New Zealand Literature Month. -Tania

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Your welcome — Kim has links to some excellent sights on what’s available. I have an affection for Australian and New Zealand works — our similar colonial histories and some similarities in geography mean that as a Canadian I often find themes and characters that are familiar.

  4. Mary K Gilbert Says:

    I can recommend Journey to the Stone Country You sparked my interest in Alex Miller with your previous review and I chose it because the plot sounded interesting. It has the most wonderful descriptions of a journey undertaken in the Northern Territories. I was totally absorbed by Miller’s prose – the heat and shimmer fairly leapt off the page. The only ( mild) criticism I would make is that Miller is a very serious writer and I do like my novels to have a smidge of humour here and there. I fully intend to work my way through Miller’s other books. You compare this book with Carr’s A Month in the Country – that’s a real endorsement!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      From the three I have read, I’d agree that humor does not often appear in his work. He concentrates a lot on his characters’ internal preoccupations and they tend to be confused and perplexed. Having said that, some of the word portraits of the hunters that he paints in this book have a smile-inducing effect.

      I think the comparison with the Carr is fair. In both books, the author had me thoroughly engaged in the central character’s dilemma — and equally impressed with the way he developed both the plot and the settings.

  5. Kasha Says:

    It’s a great read. I like the style and it’s very profound.

  6. kimbofo Says:

    Such a great review, Kevin. As you know I read this one last year and I fell in love with it largely because it depicted a world that I have experience of second-hand (having worked on a certain, ahem, equestrian/fieldsports title for many years) and this novel brought it to life in a way I had not read before. As you say, he’s an acute observer — of people and situations — but he also writes eloquently about nature and the countryside.

    Can I also second Lisa’s comment about the author being a gentleman? I met him at the London book launch of Autumn Laing and have had the good fortune to exchange a few emails with him, and he is super lovely.

    I’ve just finished reading his latest book, Coal Creek, and I know you are going to love it. He returns to life as a station hand in Queensland and it’s a rather heartbreaking read.

    Finally, thanks for the link to my ANZ Literature Month. I have been away (to Greece) and furiously scheduled most of my posts in advance so I’m a little behind in my blog reading/commenting.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for those thoughts, Kim — I look forward to continuing my “Miller” experience.

    • Lisa Hill Says:

      Greece! You lucky girl!!
      I was going to go to Greece in 2012 but switched to Russia because there was so much violent protest going on about the GFC.
      It’s still on my bucket list…

      • kimbofo Says:

        I went back to the island of Rhodes (where I went last year), quite close to Lindos, but sadly the weather wasn’t great and I had OH with me who was busy working on his laptop most of the time! But I do love the food in that part of the world, and the people are very friendly.

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