‘Autumn Laing’ by Alex Miller

Autumn_laing

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 446 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Most non-Australian readers of this blog will not have heard of Alex Miller, much less read anything by him. Some may even have mixed him up with British writer Andrew Miller or A.D. Miller. This is a great shame, because Alex Miller, who is a London-born Australian (he emigrated when he was 16), writes extraordinarily lush literary novels which deserve a wide audience. It’s no exaggeration to say he has won practically every writing prize going in Australia — and was the overall winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 — so it’s about time the rest of the world caught up.

His latest novel, Autumn Laing, is his tenth book and has just been published in the UK (the Kindle edition is available in the USA). It’s a wonderfully confident, wise and funny novel, filled with beautiful language and unforgettable characters.

The price of illicit love

Just as Irish writer Sebastian Barry rescued his aunt’s untold history and fictionalised it so vividly in On Canaan’s Side, Miller does something similar with the story of Sunday Reed, an art patron who became the jilted lover of Australian artist Sidney Nolan. In this fictionalised account, Sunday is “played by” Autumn Laing, and Sidney Nolan’s role goes to the talented but struggling artist Pat Donlan.

The narrative is shaped as a personal confession — “my last chance to tell the truth” — written by Autumn over the course of a year. She is 85 years old and her conscience is eating away at her. Recently, she thought she saw Pat Donlan’s wife — the woman she wronged 53 years earlier — coming out of the local chemist shop, and now her mind is thinking back to that time in her life when she met Pat and started a rather erotic affair with him.

But this is more than a story about their affair and the price of illicit love; it also charts the changing face of Australian art — and the desperate need for it to be recognised in Europe — in the late 1930s, and how so much of an artist’s success was truly dependent on patrons to fund and champion it.

A brilliantly witty narrator

The best bit about Autumn Laing, aside from its intelligence, poignancy and wit, is the main character who is one of the funniest and most intriguing fictional creations I have come across in a long while. She’s feisty, cantankerous — and farts a lot, mainly because she consumes copious amount of cabbage on a daily basis.

Sadly, Autumn’s hugely engaging first-person narrative does not run for the entire length of the novel. Instead, the view point changes regularly and some of it is written in the third person as Autumn imagines scenes and events that happened when she was not present — for instance, the meeting between Pat and her husband, when Pat visited him in Melbourne to beg for money to support his art work. Initially, this is disorientating for the reader, but once you get over the initial shock that Autumn’s voice is having a momentary rest, you get used to it — and then you look forward to her interjections, which occur in alternate chapters.

I spent a good two weeks with Autumn (I was reading other things in between) and hugely enjoyed her company, and I was really sad to see her go when I came to the end.

Autumn Laing was shortlisted for the 2011 Manning Clark House National Cultural Awards (Individual category) and the 2012 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature Fiction Award, and longlisted for the 2012 ALS Gold Medal and 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

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6 thoughts on “‘Autumn Laing’ by Alex Miller

  1. I read this a couple of months ago, Kim and really enjoyed it. It was my third Alex Miller this year (having first read him during ‘Australian Literature Month’ in January) and while I’d say this was perhaps not quite as good as the other two (‘Journey to the Stone Country’ and ‘Conditions of Faith’) it still had much to recommend it. The writing and the characters are wonderful and there are some great scenes – I didn’t know Miller could do laugh-out-loud funny, but he had me in stitches with the six-orgasms-a-day carer (“Did you witness any proof?” “Like a demonstration, you mean?”)!
    Personally I didn’t find that shift to third person disorientating – Autumn says right at the beginning that she is going to attempt to paint “a realist portrait” of Edith, noting that Realism is “that most difficult of styles, filled as it is with intricacy and contradiction”. Which signposts that these sections are going to be a version of the truth rather than the actual truth. The image that stuck in my mind from the book and which I kept coming back to as a reference point and key to understanding the novel was that small landscape that Edith paints of the house where she and Pat live and which (like a buried memory) has been languishing – not forgotten but put out of mind – in the barn all these years. Autumn describes the painting (looking back on it from her old age) as “a period piece, a fine tonal study in the conservative manner” and the novel could be described likewise. But the other thing that we know about Edith’s painting is that it isn’t photo-realist – Edith struggles with how to paint a field of oxalis daisies and her solution is shown to be clever, and though it is never described in detail I assumed that Edith had found a shorthand way of showing the daisies that was true to how she saw them and feels about them rather than being a strictly Realist portrayal. Which is very much the way Autumn is portraying her history.
    I have three more of Miller’s novels on my shelves and hopefully will get to them soon as I really do love his writing.

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  2. I haven’t read any of Alex Miller’s books. I read a short story of his and didn’t really enjoy it. The topic of this book sounds more interesting to me though, so I’ll look for it at the library.

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  3. Hi Kim, Autumn Laing is very good indeed,And Autumn is a marvellous creation, but I don’t think it shows Miller at his absolute best. Landscape of Farewell is my favourite, but Journey to the Stone Country is unforgettable and so is Lovesong.

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  4. I had a Twitter conversation with Sam at Allen & Unwin, and Landscape of Farewell and Journey to the Stone Country are her two favourites as well. Fortunately, I have them in my TBR — one I picked up second hand in a charity shop just down the road, the other I bought on a whim in Melbourne several years back. I will have to extract them from the pile and move them to my bedside table, so I am reminded to read them sooner rather than later. I read Lovesong last year and really enjoyed it… the story has actually stayed with me, which is usually a sign of a good book.

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  5. The library is always a good bet if you’re not sure whether you’re going to like a book or not… if you don’t like it you simply return the book and you haven’t wasted your hard-earned cash on it.

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  6. Thanks for such a wonderful comment, David. I’d forgotten about the six orgasms a day thing — I remember laughing out loud at that one, too. She’s a terrific character, isn’t she?
    And yes, that landscape by Edith is fascinating… it is a metaphor for buried truth I think, and perhaps guilt, too. It was given to Autumn’s husband and there are little hints and suggestions that he had a crush on Edith but he felt guilty about it. Why else would he chuck the painting up in the loft, never to see the light of day? At first I wondered if whether it was just a bad painting, but there are descriptions later on which describe it as a sort of masterpiece and far finer than anything Pat Donlan created. So, I think Arthur hid it from view so that he would not be reminded of his guilt. I love all the effort Autumn took to rescue it (I was sure she was going to fall off that ladder!) all those years later.

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