Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 344 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
The ways in which a woman reclaims her past — and her power — are at the heart of this very fine novel by Robert Lukins.
Loveland tells the story of May, an Australian woman, who goes to the US to claim an inheritance: a decrepit house on the edge of a poisoned lake in Nebraska.
Going to visit the house, left to her in her grandmother’s will, for the first time offers May a chance to momentarily escape her controlling husband and the teenage son she feels increasingly alienated from.
And it’s also an opportunity to find out more about her grandmother, Casey, who never spoke about her past. What secrets did she hold? And what happened to make her emigrate to Australia all those years ago?
These dual storylines, one set in the 1950s, the other in the present day, gently unfold to reveal a tapestry of love and deception and thwarted opportunities and controlling, misogynistic behaviour by the men in both women’s lives.
Over the course of the story, we get to know both women intimately. We see how May ignored the red flags and is now only coming to terms with the fact that her marriage has not been a healthy one.
On the day of their wedding, Patrick had twice gone to the toilet to cry. That’s what he said. What he told May as they stood together and waited for the celebrant to finish her speech on the sharing of joy, new discoveries, and of the couple being not perfect but perfect for each other. Patrick had whispered in May’s ear that he’d been in tears after breakfast and again just minutes before the ceremony. He’d asked if his face was puffy and if she could tell. The crying had been over his worry that May wouldn’t pay him enough attention and that he’d be ignored amid the commotion and stress of the day.
And we learn that Casey’s young life in Nebraska was also marred by an aggressive man who manipulated her to his own ends.
Not a misery novel
But this is not a stereotypical novel about domestic abuse or intergenerational violence. It’s completely free of cliché, free of pity, free of sentiment.
Lukins does not portray the women as helpless victims. Nor does he frame the story about the men or even May’s troubled relationship with them. Instead, the narrative follows May as she finds her voice, realises the truth and summons the inner strength to break the abuse cycle and begin anew.
It’s hard not to see May’s work fixing up her grandmother’s house as a metaphor for fixing herself and the fortitude and resilience required to build a new life.
Loveland is an exceptional novel. It’s eloquent, nuanced and compassionate.
And Lukins, who holds the secrets of the story close, revealing nuggets of information only when necessary, has crafted a compelling second novel, a worthy contender to his atmospheric debut, The Everlasting Sunday, which I much enjoyed when I read it in 2019.