Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 27, 2010

Lovesong, by Alex Miller

If you’re not able to give up work to read Alex Miller’s breathtakingly beautiful Lovesong,  I suggest that you start reading it on a Friday night so that you can finish reading it on the weekend. It’s not a page-turner in the sense that a thriller is, but it’s such a sublime reading experience that you can’t bear to leave the world that Miller unfolds before you.

It is a love story, of such power and complexity that you find yourself deeply immersed in the paradoxes of love and desire.  It’s about the love that sustains marriage: that desire for a companion, the complexities of passion, and the stubborn instincts that forge love of children born and unborn.  The quiet comfort of being cherished although neither really understands the other; the mutual misery and guilt of betrayals large and small.  There’s also love of country: the Australian abroad, tormented by twin urges: to live in the sophisticated world that seems elsewhere and yet to rejoice in the  sunlight of home.

I’m hesitant to sketch out the plot for fear of spoiling discoveries the reader will make, so I hope you will be enticed into buying this book by the following brief introduction:

Ken, an aging writer, is back in Melbourne from Venice.  He’s convinced himself to retire from writing, but, fearing death in Venice, is pleased when friendship with John Patterner emerges to rescue him from having nothing to do.  Over coffees at the Cafe Paradiso, John relates the story of his wife Sabiha, whose dignified sorrow had first intrigued Ken when he bought pastries from their bakery.  A quiet man – whose favourite book is the autobiography of the flamboyant Benvenuto Cellini – John becomes the storyteller, sharing the romance of meeting his exotic bride at the Cafe Dom in Paris, where she had first come from Tunisia as young woman to comfort her bereaved aunt, and their unfolding tragedy.

Interwoven with this story is Ken-the-author’s struggle to find a place for himself.  His daughter Clare is back home after a failed marriage and his relationship with her is strained by his inability to belong in Melbourne’s sub-culture of footy and pub comedians.   He has melancholy doubts about whether she reads anything (much less his books) and he’s alarmed at the idea of sharing his home with an adult daughter and the strains of rap in the house when he prefers Shostakovich.  It’s more than a generation gap: he loves Clare above all else but he feels alienated by the banality of contemporary life that has intruded into his refuge from it.

I particularly enjoyed the author’s musings on writing as a ‘conversation with the unconscious‘.   The writer-as-listener takes a story and summarises it, with…

 …diversions and reflections, into which [his] own life finds a way – like a cat finding its way into a cupboard and going to sleep there.  These secret intrusions are the assertion of my rights as a listener.  My view of this is what when someone tells you a story they give it to you.  The story is their gift.  It becomes yoursThey place the story in your trust. And they do that because they need to do so.  They want their story to go out from them and be somewhere else, with their listener.  Just as a writer wants to rid himself of his writing and get it to his reader.  I am aware that with my notes I am in my own customary way making something other of John and Sabiha’s story than the story they know.  Shaping it…in my own imagination.  I don’t know how not to do this.   (p208-9)

I hope Alex Miller goes on shaping stories in his imagination for a long time to come.  Reading Lovesong has been an enriching experience.

Lovesong has been longlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin award.  Wary now of making any predictions about the choices this year’s panel of judges might make, all I can say is that I hope Lovesong makes the shortlist too.   Apart from Jasper Jones still on the TBR for ANZ LitLovers discussion in September, I’ve now read three of the longlisted books that I already have, but am not tempted to investigate the others.  Maybe when the shortlist is revealed…and maybe not.

Author: Alex Miller
Title: Lovesong
Publisher: Allen and Unwin 2009
ISBN: 9781742371290
Source: Personal Library, purchased at Readings – and if you’re quick you may be able to get the signed and numbered limited edition for a mere $33.95.


  1. Wow, Lisa, you are getting through the books at present. My copy of this is on loan at present … but I’m saving it till it’s out in paperback which is when my bookgroup is happy to do it. I am greatly looking forward to it.

    LOL, as to being wary! But a lot of people are thinking about this one aren’t they?


  2. Thanks for a great review Lisa. I really love it when you can leap into a world that a writer so effectively creates. I am planning to buy to read for ANZLL.


  3. Sue, I surprised myself with how fast I read this beautiful book too. I started it at about 9.30 last night, with lights out at midnight. Awake at 6.00am (out of force of habit *sigh*), I finished it just before a very late breakfast today.
    It’s only just over 300 slim pages long, and is blissfully ‘easy’ to read, even allowing for lingering over Miller’s beautiful prose. I know you will love it – I am just really cross that ANZLL is discussing it in October when I’ll be away, because there are so many interesting things to talk about. It was not easy to restrain myself when writing this post, but I didn’t want to spoil anyone’s pleasure by even hinting at what happens.


  4. Chel, this is absolutely your kind of book. I am sure you will love it!


  5. Oh I know what you mean about being away. I finally got my group (with support from a few others of course) to do Voss, and we scheduled it for April BUT now I’m going to miss the April meeting as I have a job that’s going to take me that very week (SO FRUSTRATING) to Western Australia. We tried to make it the week before. I am SO upset.


  6. You’re putting *work* ahead of reading Voss with your group?? I don’t believe it!


  7. I can’t tell you how unbelievably painful it’s been, and how resentful I’ve felt. I’ve had to work hard to pull myself together. This job will be really fascinating BUT I want it all!


    • I’d love it if my group wanted to discuss Voss…


  8. I so wanted to buy this when I went to Oz at Christmas and could not find it anywhere, but plumped for one of his older books instead. I don’t understand why his stuff isn’t published over here…


  9. Kim, use The Book Depository: they’re cheaper than everywhere else and they deliver free to anywhere in the world – and even when a book’s out of stock they get it from somewhere if you fill in the request form. (They just sourced a hard-to-find book about Wellington for my father’s birthday and got it to him in less than 2 weeks). Lovesong will be out in paperback soon.
    Which older title did you buy?


  10. Fortunately I have a wonderful book group which is generally happy to tackle challenging books – though there are limits. I think this is why we’ve lasted so long – 22 years now – because we are keen readers. We even did Keri Hulme’s The bone people twice!


  11. Oh, and I’ve ordered more books from Book Depository using your site – about 7 or so now. It’s amazing! But, perhaps for kimbofo who lives in the UK it may not have the same value? I have never read Georgette Heyer but my JA group has decided we should because this year’s conference theme is JA and the Regency, and one of the speakers is a Melbournian speaking on Heyer. About $12.50 from Book Depository, while the exact same imprint from QBD here is $25 BUT I do feel guilty about the carbon miles.


  12. 22 years, Sue, that is a beautiful achievement, and I admit it, I feel a bit envious.
    Re The BD – I only suggested it to Kim because they do seem to stock a lot of Australian titles, and if she ordered them from an Aussie bookseller, they’ll charge a fortune in postage.
    I suspect that the BD doesn’t charge postage as a way of luring customers away from Amazon. I don’t know how they can afford to do it, but perhaps they’re prepared to operate at a loss like Amazon did for the first few years?
    I find their search and browsing systems much more user-friendly than Amazon, I like the way you can filter stuff out, and I love the way they include forthcoming editions that are going to be cheaper than the current one (e.g. from hardback to paperback). So if you can wait a bit, the book will cost you less. Nice.
    I’ve given up worrying about the carbon miles on my book orders. If I bought a book every day it still wouldn’t add up to the carbon emissions put out by today’s Grand Prix, or the annual electricity usage of the McMansion just built in our street.
    Loafing about and reading a book, even with a bedside light on, would have to be one of the most low-carbon things one can do!


  13. […] Lovesong by Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)  – see my review. […]


  14. […] Alex Miller – Lovesong, see my review. • Brian Castro – The Bath Fugues, see my review. • Craig Silvey – Jasper Jones, on the […]


  15. […] Lisa at ANZLitLovers also liked this book. You can read her review here. […]


  16. I read this review a while ago and immediately wanted to read this book- it seemed like a vain hope since I live in the U.K. But then, in a small independent bookshop I found a copy and read it in one sitting, loving the language and complexities of the story- I havw ordered the other Alex Miller books available here- thank you


  17. Hello, Cheryl, and welcome to ANZ LitLovers!
    I’m delighted to see that you share my enthusiam for Alex Miller, I think he’s one of our very best.

    BTW, I always try to provide an inexpensive
    source for the books I’m writing about for my international readers, so if you are interested in tracking something down, scroll down to the publishing details at the bottom and click the link. If it’s available at the Book Depository which delivers worldwide for free, the link will take you there.

    If not, the link will go to my preferred Australian Aussie bookshops who have an online portal, usually Readings – because they sponsor the Melbourne Writers’ Festival so I like to support them. Sometimes, especially for small indie publishers, the link will take you direct to the publisher (if they sell online).

    For purchases from Aussie booksellers of any kind, alas, you would have to pay postage.

    As books for eReaders become more available, I’ll also be adding links for them too.


  18. […] Excellent news!  The Age Book of the Year Award has been announced at the Melbourne Writers Festival today – and it goes to Alex Miller for his gorgeous novel, Lovesong.  To see my enthusiastic review, click here. […]


  19. […] Alex Miller (Lovesong) (see my review) […]


  20. Am I only the only one to have loathed this book? I thought it dealt with the most sexist stereotypes – I felt I was reading a Mills and Boon romance and groaned my way through it, often feeling like flinging it through the window. I also found the central characters heartless and unlikeable. Sabiha ruined their lives in her obsession to have a little girl, and Ken stole the story from her husband, John, disdainfully dismissing John’s desire to write the story himself.


    • Goodness, Naomi, you do seem cross about it. I know some people who weren’t madly keen – but they haven’t commented here so I must leave them to speak for themselves somewhere else when it suits them.
      I hope you can find a book you like better for your next read.


  21. […] a detailed review check out the Litloversblog. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]


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