Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 1, 2017

The Passage of Love, by Alex Miller

I’m going to keep this short because Alex Miller is one of my favourite authors and it pains me to write that I am disappointed by his latest work.

It’s an awkward experiment in creative non-fiction: in the blurb Miller describes it as fictional autobiography:

My opportunity in old age to review my life and to celebrate the lives of loved ones, and to do this in the form of story.

The ‘story’ consists of occasional short first person meditations deriving from the author’s present, which punctuate a much longer chronological third person account of an alter ego named Robert Croft, detailing his early struggle to become a writer and the misadventure of a hasty marriage.  Since the hapless reader does not know how much of what Miller writes is a mask for real events and real people (and a real wife in particular), the experience of reading it is a bit like those awkward encounters with a friend who one day reveals that his wife doesn’t understand him.  Reading The Passage of Love feels like reluctantly eavesdropping on a private life.   At its conclusion one still doesn’t know what to believe and the empathetic response wrestles with doubts about aspects of it and the temptation to be curious about her side of the story.  (The wife is a character whose portrait veers between a person with a destructive personality and one with a mental illness.  It comes as a relief to learn that she is dead and not reading about herself like this.)

This uneasy intimacy seems to struggle with an authorial instinct for reticence.  The book is nearly 600 pages long but the sparse moments of self-reflection wrestle with a great deal of nostalgic detail that most editors would have pruned savagely had it come from a less prestigious author.  At page 350 I noted with exasperation that Robert Croft still wasn’t writing, much less getting published, and I plodded on – in disbelief that this very disappointing book was penned by Alex Miller, an author whose books I have always enjoyed.

Oh, and I became very tired of the incessant references to cigarettes!  Almost everything that happens is punctuated by finding them, lighting them, locating an ashtray, stubbing them out, sharing them… if I had this book on Kindle I could tally how many instances there are but I don’t need to do that to know that these obsessive references to smoking are tedious.

Author: Alex Miller
Title: The Passage of Love
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2017
ISBN: 9781760297343
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

Available from Fishpond: The Passage of Love


Responses

  1. Well Well. He is an author that I also enjoy and have reserved this book so will be interesting to see if I have a similar view.

    • It’s definitely not what I expected, Fay. There are heaps of 5-star reviews at Goodreads but they seem to be for giveaway copies ‘in exchange for an honest review’ so I don’t know what to make of it. Do let me know if you think I’ve been unfair, please.

  2. What a shame. I think sometimes successful authors feel pressured to write another book but it’s hard to reproduce earlier successes. Same for singers, actors … I’ll still try to read it.

    • Well, he might also have been intrigued by the current vogue for ‘creative non-fiction’ and thought that it suited his purposes best.
      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it:)

  3. I totally disagree with your reading of this book, along with the reading of many other reviewers who have been distracted by the notion that it is Alex Miller’s own story. All of his novels are to some extent aspects of his life. Sexism is so deeply embedded in our reading that even women reviewers don’t really look at what’s happening but assume the man must be the most important feature of the book, dismissing Lena as mentally ill or anorexic or invalidating her in some other way, while she struggles, frantically at first, to find a way out of the iron cage of social and community expectation that is literally suffocating her.

    Fortunately readers are loving the book and booksellers are getting wonderful feedback from them everywhere.

    • Hello Stephanie, thank you for sharing your opinion:)
      I hope you didn’t think I was invalidating Lena: even if this this character is mentally ill or anorexic (which is what I think he implies), that wouldn’t invalidate her IMO. Having a mental illness – while it might make things worse (especially if untreated) – doesn’t mean that all the problems of life are attributable to that, not at all.
      I think the book shows that both of them are struggling to escape community expectations, and both of them appear to suffer extreme stress because of it. (He talks about suicide as the story goes on). But I do think the book is primarily about him and his struggle, and that the character of Lena is there to portray the conflict between his duty to care for her and his desire to write.

      • I agree that Alex Miller can be a beautiful writer but there is something about the way he writes about women that makes me uncomfortable. But I have left that unexamined, so have no real insights to offer. Maybe it’s time I examined it.

        • *chuckle* Let me know if you do a post about it!

  4. I was tempted by the combination of important Australian author and creative non-fiction but 600 pp? No thank you.

    • 600pp can be fine if the book is engaging, but I must admit that I put off reading it for a bit because of its length.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful words. Looking forward to reading it anyway, to see what I think. I am uncomfortable about this author. It is something to do with his “importance”. But he can be stunning.

    • Apart from the quality of his writing, I think his significance derives from Journey to the Stone Country. I remember reading this when it won the Miles Franklin, it seems forever ago now, and (apart from Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia) it was one of the first books I’d read that acknowledged Australia’s Indigenous heart. These days there are all those arguments about appropriation and so on, but back then, it felt like a relief to find a storyteller who wasn’t airbrushing Aborigines away.

  6. […] The Passage of Love (2017, see my review […]

  7. Thank goodness!

    I’m so pleased to read this. I abandoned the book after about 50 pgs in despair & huge disappointment, but my colleagues loved it, so I thought it was just me.

    My brief reason why I snap fined the book is st the end of this post – http://bronasbooks.blogspot.com.au/2017/09/abandon-all-hope.html?m=1

    • Hi Brona, it’s the disappointment that rankles most. I’m sure we all look forward to a new release by our favourite authors and it can almost feel like betrayal when the book doesn’t measure up to what we’re expecting… (Which is totally unreasonable of course, I know. But still…)

  8. Hi Lisa, I am one who loved this read. I had no expectations, but I do like Alex Miller’s writing style. I think Alex Miller writes from the heart. His descriptions and observations of characters and environment are so revealing.

    • Yes, I would agree with that, that this is written from the heart. But I think he’s holding back as well.

  9. […] of Nature by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan Australia) The Choke by Sofie Laguna (Allen & Unwin) The Passage of Love by Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin) The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham (Hachette Australia) […]

  10. […] The Passage of Love, by Alex Miller […]


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