By Alex Miller
Allen & Unwin, $39.99, pp 464
By Janette Turner Hospital
Fourth Estate, $23.99, pp 232
Two of Australia’s most important writers are at the peak of their craft in these outstanding literary works. They showcase their skills from different spots on the publishing spectrum — Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing is his longest and best novel to date, while Janette Turner Hospital’s Forecast: Turbulence is a tight suite of nine short stories and a memoir — but each does the work good writing is supposed to do: help us to understand the human condition, the why we are here.
‘I ask no more than to find the courage to tell his story and mine truthfully and in my own words,’ says Miller’s cantankerous 85-year-old narrator, Autumn Laing.
For this imagination will be required. It is not fiction and truth that oppose each other. Fiction is the landscape beyond reality and has its own truth, the truth of our intimate lives. The place of empathy.
The his in ‘his story’ refers to Pat Donlon, the catalytic character of this novel, based on the great Australian artist Sidney Nolan, who was, through the power of his work, directly responsible for the teenage Miller’s decision to emigrate to Australia in 1952.
Autumn in turn is based on Sunday Reed of Heide fame, Nolan’s early champion and lover. The affair hurt many people, not least the two adulterers, and one of Miller’s many acts of empathy is to lay bare how betrayal can be as shocking for the betrayer as for the betrayed.
This sharp understanding of human relationships is something we have come to expect from Miller: it’s the unifying intelligence of novels such as Lovesong, Landscape of Farewell, Journey to the Stone Country and Conditions of Faith. He has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice, for Journey to the Stone Country in 2003 and The Ancestor Game a decade earlier, and if Autumn Laing is not on next year’s shortlist feathers will be capable of toppling this reviewer.
Miller has long been interested in art and his descriptions of young Donlon dashing off paintings under a blazing sun are magnificent. He also sees, though, that the elusive art eluded its creator. He is attuned to the ‘silence at the heart of art’. Early on, Autumn describes Donlon as a man who would have scoffed if called a romantic but ‘deep inside, where Pat inhabited his creative life he was like a great sad bird roosting in the fastness of some mountain range, exposed relentlessly to the fierce elements of his own doubts and fancies’.
The legendary Australian outback is complicit in this, as Autumn writes at another point, for ‘…in truth the outback is not a place but is the Australian imagination itself. It is always elsewhere. …It is the Australian imagination that is the undiscovered country. The vacancy in our hearts.’
This is sophisticated storytelling at its most engaging. On turning the final page, you may well think, with a small sigh of satisfaction: now, that’s a novel.
Janette Turner Hospital is a few years younger than Miller and has moved in the opposite direction, geographically speaking. Raised in Queensland, she has spent most of her adult life overseas, most recently in South Carolina, where she has lived for the past 12 years. Home, though, remains Queensland, where her elderly, frail father lives and which is the setting of her beautiful memoir ‘Moon River’, a fitting coda to the often heart-rending stories that precede it in Forecast: Turbulence.
Turner Hospital is a dedicated investigator of psychological survival in the wake of trauma, of how we try to recover after suffering unrecoverable loss. It’s there in her big, best-known novels, such as Due Preparations for the Plague (2003), set in the aftermath of an Air France hijacking, and it’s there on a smaller but no less intense scale in these stories, with their relentless cast of absent fathers, abandoned wives, troubled children and isolated,
In ‘Weather Maps’, two teenage girls visit the men in jail who should be looking after them, and share their need to self-mutilate. In ‘Afterlife of a Stolen Child’, a story for which readers should make due preparations, a two-year-old boy is snatched from his pram outside a swish bakery. The detail is devastating: his mother is inside buying bread and ‘two little strawberry tarts’. Even in a gentler story such as ‘Hurricane Season’, in which a boy and his grandmother rather naughtily stay put as a hurricane threatens, the author insists on reminding us how fragile are the things we love.
If this all sounds a bit dark, that’s because it is. Turner Hospital does bleak with the best of them. Mention this to her and she will tell you that she finds most of her material in the news pages of the New York Times. And of course that’s why we read handlers of dark materials such as Turner Hospital, or Cormac McCarthy: the newspaper can tell us what happened; but they might be able to tell us why it happened, and what it felt like. Such as in this exchange in ‘Weather Maps’ between the girls who cut themselves with razor blades:
‘You can make whatever patterns you want,’ I agreed, ‘and it’s private.’ She frowned slightly, thinking about this. ‘You can’t always keep it private, but still it’s better. Because no-one else is doing it to you.’
And then we come to the end, ‘Moon River’, where the unrecoverable loss is Turner Hospital’s: the death of her mother, Elsie Morgan Turner, in a Brisbane hospital in 2009. The grief memoir is a crowded marketplace just now, but that’s no reason not to read another one: loss is complicated, and we need all the guidance we can get. Turner Hospital chooses Heraclitus for her epigraph: ‘You can not step into the same river twice.’ Life moves inexorably, that is true. It’s also true that there are some waters we’d rather not step into even once, and Turner Hospital is a fearless explorer of these, because they are there, awaiting us all.
Stephen Romei is the Australian’s literary editor. His blog, A Pair of Ragged Claws, is at www.theaustralian.com.au/thearts