Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 288 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
The self and how we reveal different parts to different people is the central theme in Alex Miller’s latest novel.
The title, A Brief Affair, might suggest a romantic dalliance, and while that does form an element of the story — indeed, it’s a brief affair that acts as a catalyst for all that follows — it’s not the heart and soul of the book.
Instead, this rather gentle story focuses on two women, a generation apart, who must deal with the unintended consequences of forbidden love.
For married academic and mother of two Dr Frances Egan, a one-night stand with a handsome stranger while on a business trip to China has long-lasting repercussions on her inner life. For Valerie Sommers, the forced separation from her female lover, at a time when same-sex couples were outlawed, lands her in a mental hospital.
Fran’s story is set in the present day using the third person with an emphasis on inner dialogue, while Valerie’s is set in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is told in confessional style through diary entries, which include prose and poetry.
The link between the two women comes when Valerie’s long-lost notebook is discovered at Frances’ workplace, which was once an asylum. But as Frances reads Valerie’s writings and begins to discover intimate details of this stranger’s life, she seeks to find a more personal connection and strives to find common ground even though she knows Valerie’s suffering has been immeasurably different from her own.
She wanted a definite connection between herself and Valerie. She knew, her instincts knew, that such a link existed if only it could find its way through her tumult to an expression of itself. She needed time to think. Time to reflect. There was never any time. Then the simplicity of it would unfold. Valerie’s poetry would become her own moment in a landscape of real reality.
Their twin narratives are interleaved, but the focus is mainly on Fran who is grappling with the intense afterglow of her own affair, a marriage that has hit a rocky patch and troubles on the career front thanks to a sexist boss who is demanding and condescending by turns.
A rich inner life
There’s not much of a plot, but the story is a compelling one because of the way it charts Fran’s inner life, her views on motherhood and marriage, and the intimate details that make up her personality, including her hopes, dreams, desires and fears.
Miller is exceptionally good at nuance and his well-drawn female characters are authentic, flawed and believable. He has incredible insight into the female psyche and the issues with which women grapple on a day-to-day basis:
When you have children you are no longer free to do as you like with your life. Does everyone know this before they have children? Or does it come as a surprise? Margie was born during the night. An easy birth. Out she came. Pink and ready to make a go of it. And three days later Tom drove us both home. It took a couple of weeks — or was it months? Then I woke up one morning knowing I had paid with my life for the privilege of motherhood.
A Brief Affair is a beautifully told tale that explores the self we present to the world, the self that changes over time and the secret part of ourselves we keep hidden from the world. It’s a story about memory and experience, the compromises we make along the way, the relationships we form and the paths we navigate as life unfolds.
I really enjoyed this quiet, subtle book, the perfect balm for these unsettled times.
I read this book for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth. Please note it is currently only available in Australia, but his novels generally do get published worldwide, so you might just need to be patient. If you can’t wait, you can order direct from the publisher.