Autumn Laing, by Alex Miller

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Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Autumn Laing is 85 when 1991 dawns — her body failing (excessive farting, among other disorders), but her mind still sharp (most of the time), she has already prepared for her own end by hiding away three tablets that will bring it to a rapid close. That tentative “plan” has to be put on hold because she thinks that a few days earlier she saw Edith Black, a woman to whom Autumn had done grievous harm 53 years before, entering the local chemist’s shop:

Seeing Edith after all these years snatched the prospect of my own orderly death out of my hands. If Edith Black was not done with life then I was not done with it. The question that refused to let me sleep was whether I might recompense her with the truth. To embark on the confession that he and I resisted for so long. That he resisted. Most of all, the confession he resisted. It was his truth, after all, that he denied to us. And in denying it to us, denied it to himself. I was humiliated and left with nothing. But the largest burden of our cruelty surely fell on Edith, abandoned and alone with her child. The form of Pat’s cruelty was always in his denial of things that made him uncomfortable. Even in that great expansive art of his, encompassing our entire continent, a truth was denied, was kept to one side of the picture, in the silence. And it was great.

His art, I mean. There was none greater before him and there have been none greater since. Not in this country. My poor sad country. This vast pile of rubble, as someone has called it, that we think so very highly of (it is all we have to think highly of).

That “vast pile of rubble” is Australia and, after reading only the most recent of his 10 novels, I would have to say Alex Miller is one of its hidden gems, at least internationally. He is a two-time winner of that country’s prestigious Miles Franklin Prize (for Journey to the Stone Country and The Ancestor Game, his fourth and seventh novels) but Autumn Laing (released in 2011) is the only work readily available in North America — a quick search at the Book Depository in the U.K. shows only two others (Lovesong and Conditions of Faith) available there.

Let’s go back to the excerpt, because it is a precise summary of what the novel will be. First off, it is very much Autumn’s story: inspired by what she thinks is the sight of a woman whom she wronged more than half a century ago, Autumn begins writing down her memories of what took place then. We know from it that she is guilt-ridden over “stealing” Pat from Edith — it will take almost the full 452 pages of the book before Miller reveals all the details of that because Autumn herself is unwilling to fully unpack the memories. And the excerpt offers the tantilizing hint that Pat is not merely an artist, but, at least in Autumn’s opinion, the greatest that Australia has ever produced.

Pat was never deep. He was intuitive, but he was not deep. It was I who was deep. I who was left on my own to struggle with the fearful knots and tangles of our vicious web, while he sailed on in clean air, free of self-doubt, painting his pictures as if they were his alone to paint. So instead of eating my three little yellow pills I shall write this. Then I shall eat them.

And so Autumn returns to 1930s and Ocean Grove, the run-down estate just outside Melbourne where she and her new husband, Arthur, set up a household. Australia at that point (much like Canada of the same era, I must say) is very much a country emerging from its British roots and the couple both come from prominent stock — Autumn’s family for a time “accounted for the largest fortune in Melbourne” and Arthur’s is almost as wealthy, although since their money comes from the land, they have a lesser social standing (“Arthur doesn’t think enough of money” is Autumn’s father’s summary opinion when he first meets the lawyer who will become her husband).

The couple turn Ocean Grove into an Australian version of the rural retreats favored by the Bloomsbury group, attracting a coterie of Bohemian literary and artistic types. That’s the magnet that eventually brings Pat and Edith into the story.

Edith’s grandfather was an outstanding Australian artist, but of the traditional Scottish model: “He was not a visionary. He did not see it as his business to challenge the authority of his masters. His subjects were leisurely pastoral scenes, farm buildings, crops and roads leading somewhere or other, a girl sometimes with a straw hat and ribbon going somewhere or other, a workman in a field with a horse, the sound of birdsong and maybe a butterfly or two.” He trained at the Slade School in London; Edith has inherited some of his talent and is enrolled at the Gallery School in Melbourne, at its best a dim colonial shadow of the Slade, where she paints delicate landscapes herself.

It is there that she meets, and falls in love with, Pat Donlon, son of an Irish tram conductor (in 1930s Melbourne, that is two strikes against him already), who rejects all that this traditional art school stands for, as is shown when the pair move into their first humble house:

For her, work is a subtle, delicate, mysterious coming together of the right mood and the right moment. Work is the difficult making of art. Striving, that is the word that characterises what she does. She has had to settle in to this house before she could begin, to feel herself to be in place. But not him. He was off. He had made five of his pictures by midnight the first night on his pieces of cardboard. She went to bed. After he had finished painting he sat in the kitchen reading and smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, and writing poetry in his notebook. He does everything at once. Writing, painting, drinking and smoking. He does not know if he is a writer or a painter. He does what he pleases. She was asleep by the time he came to bed and wanted to make love.

In 1938, three years after Autumn and Arthur move into Ocean Grove, the four come together. Pat has headed into Melbourne to seek a “bursary” from a wealthy industrialist who supplies funding so young Australian artists can go to England — the art critic who screens applicants summarily dismisses him. A friendly receptionist in the philanthropist’s office gives Pat the address of Arthur’s law office, knowing he has more contemporary tastes. A sorely disappointed Pat does visit Arthur, more out of frustration than anything else, Arthur invites him back to Ocean Grove for dinner, and the door begins to edge open on what will be Autumn’s life of guilt.

Autumn Laing, on its most obvious level, is a character story and all of these four (particularly Autumn) are fully-developed. There is a continuing sub-theme, however, that for this Canadian reader is every bit as powerful.

I have made reference before to the similarities in Australian and Canadian fiction — one of the first posts on this blog discussed it in some detail. The Australia of 1938 is much like the Canada of the same era — both countries, politically and artistically, were just beginning to escape the apron strings of Mother England. Autumn, Arthur, Edith and Pat are each in their own way contributors to making that “independent” Australia come to life. I could cite a number of Canadian examples but will content myself with pointing to the recently-reviewed Carol Shields’ novel, The Stone Diaries, as one that features a similar heroine (Daisy Flett and Autumn Laing are both born in 1905) who will face some similar challenges coming of age and living adult life in a British colony that is turning itself into a country.

If emerging Australia is the macro story and Autumn’s life the micro one, Autumn Laing has a wealth of “mid-level” story lines as well (e.g. the continuing conflict between Melbourne and Sydney for cultural and economic supremacy) that add even more depth to the novel — Miller isn’t just good at close-up and overview, he is equally talented at many things in-between. Because the narrative is being written by an 86-year-old from memory (and some chapters move to the third person), the switches in perspective often come without warning — this is one of those novels that both demands and rewards close attention from the reader.

Autumn Laing first came to my attention last June with an enthusiastic review from Kimbofo at Reading Matters. I only decided to buy a copy, however, when David, a frequent commenter here whose opinion I respect, revealed that he had read no less than five Alex Miller novels last year (two, not including this one, made his top 10 for the year) — that is about as committed an endorsement as I can imagine. And the good news for this reader is that both Kim and David say that while Autumn Laing is just fine, it is not Miller at his best — given how much I enjoyed this novel, I can’t wait to get into his previous work. Once I figure out how to buy them without punishing shipping costs, of course — surely it is time that some entrepreneur figures out how Canadians can read Australian writers (and vice versa) at something close to the posted cover price.

(EDIT: Good news. As you will discover in a comment from Kimbofo below, Miller’s UK pubishers (Allen and Unwin) will be releasing his entire back catalogue this year. So this author at least has broken free from my whine in the concluding paragraph. I plan to (slowly) pick up on his past works in a roughly chronological order since I think I will want to eventually read most of them.)

24 Responses to “Autumn Laing, by Alex Miller”

  1. sharkell Says:

    I’ve had this book in my tbr for a while now and I haven’t been very motivated to read it – I had ambivalent feelings about Lovesong and I’m not sure Alex Miller is for me. Your review has piqued my interest and I may just dust it off and give it a whirl.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      It is a very introspective book and Autumn as narrator sometimes tends to repeat herself, at other times she forgets aspects of what she should be remembering. I didn’t find that a problem once I got into the rhythm of the prose, but I will admit that it did take a bit of effort to find that.

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  2. Kristine Says:

    Hi Kevin.
    I am also a fan of Alex Miller.
    As an aid to finding books by Australian (or any other) authors you can check this website: http://booko.com.au
    This will show you where books are available, cost, plus postage (if any).
    Hope this helps.
    Regards, Kristine

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for that link. I did a quick check and it certainly has a number of options that I was not aware of. What I need to do now is further research on finding the best strategy for international shipping prices — I know from experience with DVDs from Australia that different sellers have a wide variety of shipping charges.

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  3. Guy Savage Says:

    On the list, thanks kevin. Now to check out this author’s back list, and yes I agree wholeheartedly with your last comment.

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  4. Lisa Hill Says:

    Hello Kevin, I’m a keen fan of Alex Miller too, and have read nearly everything he’s published and reviewed four of his books on my blog(see his name in the tag cloud). I profiled him as well, see http://anzlitlovers.com/2011/01/16/meet-an-aussie-author-alex-miller/
    I agree that Autumn Laing while well worth reading is not Miller at his best, I think of his recent books, Lovesong or Landscape of Farewell are my favourites.
    Your best bet for buying his books is The Book Depository (http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/). Just type Alex Miller into the search box, and most of his books are there, and the the BD delivers around the world for free.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for that link — I realized after I posted the review that I should have checked your site for Miller. And when I did, I discovered a wealth of posts about his work. Sorry about not thinking about that sooner.

      As for the BD and Miller, I suspect that this is another one of those cases where different parts of the world get different offers from the BD. My search on their site offers only the three I mentioned — you obviously get a longer list when you search from Australia. I suspect that means the BD has a Down Under distribution centre that stocks some titles that don’t get offered elsewhere. I’ve run into this before with the BD (usually titles that will be published later in North America so they block sales of the UK edition to customers here) — their computer has a very good idea of where customers are coming from.

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      • Lisa Hill Says:

        Well, I knew there was a difference in what is stocked by BD US and UK but not that they tracked where you were and tailored their offerings accordingly. (I knew Amazon did that, and I’ve always found that a bit spooky, but after discovering that they were selling t-shirts advocating rape, I don’t buy anything from Amazon any more anyway.)
        Fishpond is very good for books from Australia and from New Zealand, and they deliver free within ANZ, but not internationally, alas. Aren’t we all becoming canny about where and how to buy these days, eh?!

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        • David Says:

          I must confess, Lisa, I don’t truly understand how Fishpond works. They now have a .co.uk site and claim to offer free worldwide shipping, but they don’t actually hold a stock of books themselves, rather they source them at the best price from around the world. Some of their prices are so high as to suggest they include a hidden shipping cost, some aren’t. For instance I was just looking at Stephen Orr’s ‘Dissonance’ (which your review last year brought to my attention) and it is roughly the same price from Fishpond (£19.97) as from the publisher Wakefield Press ($27.95 = £18.89) using “a local supplier” whatever that means. But then Susan Midalia’s “An Unknown Sky” is £14.99 from Fishpond, “in stock” to ship today, compared to £18.59 from Book Depository. Presumably BD’s price covers the already incurred cost to them of importing it, so where is the “in stock” Fishpond copy shipping from that they can afford to be almost £4 cheaper? I’m almost tempted to order a copy just to find out!

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          • Lisa Hill Says:

            David, I don’t know how it works either, but it certainly pays to shop around. I know that the Book Depository has some kind of special deal with postage in the UK but whether the other online stores have something similar is a mystery. And how the BD can make any money on those old classics for $4-5 AUD and postage free I do not know!

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  5. David Says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed ‘Autumn Laing’, Kevin, and that you’re keen to read more of his work. Whilst this wasn’t quite my favourite of his books, I still think it is very good indeed.

    I particularly like how he weaves the art into the structure of the book – Miller has spoken of it as a Realist novel, and Autumn herself says right at the start that she intends to make a Realist portrait of Edith (the third person chapters where Autumn writes herself in as a ‘character’) though noting that Realism is “that most difficult of styles, filled as it is with intricacy and contradiction”. That is certainly true for the book as a whole – she’s trying for a version of the “truth” but as ever, truth is subjective and mutable, particularly from the vantage point of 50-odd years. For me the key to the novel was that small painting that Edith makes of the house she lives in with Pat: it’s realistic, but not photo-realist; Edith struggles with how to paint a field of oxalis daisies and her solution (Autumn tells us) is clever, and though it is never fully detailed we assume Edith has found a shorthand way of showing the daisies that is truer to how she sees them and feels about them than a strictly Realist portrayal would have been. Which is very much the way Autumn is portraying her history.
    And of course, that painting languishes for all that time in a hayloft like a buried memory, which Autumn has to literally struggle (on a precarious ladder) to retrieve.

    Funnily enough, I have just finished reading another of Miller’s books – his 1995 novel “The Sitters”, which is told from the point of view of an ageing portrait painter who, via his relationship with a new colleague who sits for him, overcomes a creative block. That book too is very good on art and the creative process, and again he links the art directly into both the character and the way he tells the story. I think a lot of his insight probably applies to, and draws on, his own creative process as a writer, but given he has written three novels about painters now (“Prochownik’s Dream” being the other) I do wonder if he also paints? He certainly seems to understand it like a practitioner.

    My only quibble with “Autumn Laing” is perhaps an unfair one, as it is one of comparison. For a long novel it feels slighter than “Journey to the Stone Country” or “Conditions of Faith”, and I wasn’t as immersed in it as I have been in some of his other books. One thing Miller excels at, most notably in “Journey…” is creating a vivid sense of place and landscape which goes beyond mere description to become almost hallucinatory, and I didn’t get that with “Autumn Laing”, even when they go out to the Station in the bush.

    Why Miller isn’t better known internationally, particularly in the UK, is a mystery to me. He was born in England and emigrated when he was 17, and many of his books feature European settings or characters. I think five of his novels have been published here, but seem to have gone almost unnoticed despite a few good reviews. But then the same could be said of many Australian writers (I just read Christopher Koch’s new book, “Lost Voices” – he’s another double Miles Franklin-winner and ought to be in with a good chance of a third, but seems to be pretty much unknown here) and Canadians too (David Adams Richards immediately springs to mind as a wonderful author who is highly regarded in Canada, but has bizarrely never troubled a Booker longlist).

    Finally, I completely agree with the last line of your review. Australian books are so hard to get hold of at a reasonable price. I don’t think it helps that the cover prices (in Australia) seem quite high to begin with, compared with UK or US books. And then the shipping on top makes them ridiculously expensive. Recently Fishpond, the Australian online retailer, started selling worldwide. Their .com.au address now redirects for me to a co.uk address with prices in GBP, even though all their emails come from a Singapore address, and the books themselves ship from New Zealand! It sounds very complex, but the upshot is that finally books are available at a semi-reasonable price – the Koch I mentioned above was a large format paperback and cost £18.99 including shipping.

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  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Thank you for such an informed and interesting comment.

    I second your assessment of the notion of Realist art as a continuing metaphor for what Autumn is attempting to achieve with her journals — and the important symbolic role that Edith’s painting that lies hidden in the loft for fifty years plays in the novel. Every time that Autumn’s writing or memory got rather muddled (and it does), I wondered if she was facing the same challenge that Edith did in painting the daisies — and how often Autumn opted for a solution that was more original than the original, in a literary version of “painter’s licence”.

    It is a quibble on my part, but I could have done with more art. The landscape you mention is the only work of Edith’s that appears in the novel — presumably she abandoned art when she took up Pat. But I could have done with a little more of what his art was about. Certainly, I thought the portions late in the book where he finds his signature form (I’d say it is a blend of modernist and surrealist landscape from the description) were very effective — I could have done with a little more on the stages that preceded it. As for Miller and art themes in his books, Pat in the early pages (and the excerpt I included) doesn’t know whether he is a painter or writer (or beer drinker or cigarette smoker) — I suspect in that aspect that there is some MIller in him. Mrs. KfC and I collect Canadian art and I am partial to novels where painting (or even better the art business — Miller portrays the Melbourne-Sydney conflict on that one very well) is a theme, so I will look forward to those other two you mention.

    Art would be one of those “mid-perspective” themes that runs through the book. Another that neither my review nor your comment has mentioned is the way that Miller captures “gender” issues from the era. The four central characters may be liberal, lefty, arty types but that doesn’t mean that gender issues don’t come into play — and given that Australia is still a “frontier”, they have a special character. Miller is not polemical or didactic on this — like a good artist, he just offers his version of the picture. All four are affected by “expectations” that even Bohemian types have about gender roles.

    I did sometimes have the feeling that Autumn Laing would have been a better book if Miller had taken one more run at it with a red pencil and cut 80-100 pages. While I could appreciate that 86-year-old Autumn sometimes needed to take a few runs at a memory to get all the details straight (or at least a version of them), after the first couple of times I wasn’t always happy to be part of the journey. From some of the criticisms that I have read of the reviews of the book, I think that was even more of an issue for some other readers. Then again, it is the author’s tenth book so maybe he knows more about what is appropriately included than I do.

    I’ll probably approach Miller in roughly chronological order, which means that the readily-available Lovesong will be my next stop and then I’ll address the buying from Australia issue. Thanks for the Fishpond data. I suspect the best solution is the same as the one that I advise people about buying from Canada: if you can hang on until you have a four or five book order, you can reduce shipping costs to a decent amount.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I did some checking on the Fishpond site, with their quoted international rates. A five book order makes the shipping costs about $6 Aus. per book — only $2 more a volume than the cover price once the online discount is included. Admittedly that is still $25 Aus. for a paperback (I agree that Australian book prices are high by Canadian standards) which is expensive but not excessive. (Well, perhaps somewhat excessive — the BD version of Lovesong would be $11 with free shipping.) My biggest problem is paying the shipper as much as I pay the bookstore.

      So I think I will just keep a personal list of ABTO (Australian Books To Order) until I get to the five book threshhold.

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  7. sharkell Says:

    I’ve just checked the shipping rates from Australia to Canada using Australia Post and it is $13.70 to send a parcel up to 500g by airmail. It is $28.90 to send a parcel up to 1kg. These rates are what the general consumer would pay so $6 per book doesn’t sound too bad when you compare it to Australia Post rates. I agree, though, that books in Australia are prohibitively priced. I usually don’t buy new books because of the cost.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      The Fishpond system is the same as Indigo in Canada for international shipping — it is about $15 for the first book, but just under $4 for each additional one. Although, from what David said in his comment above and my own observations, I think I’ll have to take care that the order all comes from the same supplier. I’m not one of those readers who needs a particular book tomorrow, so I’ll just keep a mental shopping list and place a bulk order a couple times a year.

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  8. kimbofo Says:

    Yay! So glad you enjoyed this one. I thought it would appeal to you, because I know you like novels about art/artists.

    And I agree, sourcing his books is difficult. I can’t even get them here in the UK. The British arm of his publisher Allen & Unwin only have a trio of titles and despite what Lisa says above, you can’t get them from the Book Depository.co.uk. Such a pity that in this day and age of globalisation so many books are restricted to certain areas of the world. Bookfinder.com is a useful site for tracking new and secondhand copies though because you can choose the destination (ie. Canada) and your currency.

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  9. kimbofo Says:

    Me again. I took the liberty of tweeting your review to Allen & Unwin UK and they tweeted back to say they would be reissuing all of Miller’s earlier novels in the UK this year. Great news! Hopefully that gives you another option to get his books, Kevin.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      That is excellent news — and a very smart decision on the publisher’s part. I was going to read Lovesong (which is readily available) next anyway so I don’t mind waiting a few months for the re-issues to be published.

      And my whine still proves useful for other Australian authors. I plan on keeping an active list of books to be ordered anyway.

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  10. judy gardner Says:

    i found your blog because of Toby’s Room and have been been reading ever since. i have just listened to the broadcast with Shelagh Rodgers, excellent, and felt I wanted to add my comment. Your blog is wonderful and adds much to my reading and book selling at Indigo Books.
    Thank you for your great effort and book knowledge and passion.

    Well done!

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  11. Charlotte Self Says:

    I was crazy about this book for lots of reasons, but especially because of its interesting connections. The inspiration for Pat Donlon is the painter Sidney Nolan whose wonderful paintings of Ned Kelly were one of the reasons that Peter Carey wrote The History of the Kelly Gang. Alex Miller said the story was hijacked by Autumn and I was happy to go along on that ride. I have found Miller’s ability to understand women uncanny at times, particularly in Conditions of Faith. It was a treat to read your (as usual) insightful review and revisit this book.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was not aware of the Nolan/Reed connection until I read Miller’s afterword when I finished the novel. Not knowing about it did not affect my enjoyment or appreciation — although I suspect another element would have been added if I had.

      And I agree that Autumn “hijacked” the book for the author — I for one am quite happy that she did.

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