Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2021

Past Life, by William Lane

Hunter Valley author William Lane is the author of four previous novels, Over the Water (2014), The Horses (2015), The Salamanders, (2016) and The Word (2018). (Links are to my reviews).  What I like about his novels is that they are all entirely different to one another, though all of them deal in some way with a character who is not emotionally ready for relationships.

His new novel Past Life ventures into territory not much explored in Australian fiction.  Both Melbourne and Sydney have substantial Russian communities, but in my reading experience, they don’t feature much in our literature except in Cold War stories, such as John Tesearch’s Dinner with the Dissidents.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across any Australian novel that features the experience of Russians during WW2.

In Lane’s novel, the fraught relationship between lovers who fought on opposite sides bleeds through into the next generation.   Of German origin but living in Russia, Friedrich had found himself working as an interpreter for the invading (and then retreating) Germans, while his lover Julia fought with the Soviet partisans.  When the story opens in the more recent past, Friedrich, who lives in a shed on the back of a Sydney property owned by a Russian émigré called Sophie, is a writer who fell foul of the Soviet Union.  He becomes friendly with Anna, the adopted daughter of Sophie, and tragedy ensues when he realises who she really is.

In evoking the childhood emergence of Friedrich the writer, Lane shows the tragedy of Soviet repression of the creative arts.

Not long after that the class was asked to write a story.  The children had not done this for some time, and at first collectively struggled — except Friedrich.  Having started his story in a bored mandatory way, suddenly he could not stop.  The words welled up inside him and immediately paired with the outer world. Strings of words might be shining beneath the paper in secret writing.  The smell of the desks, the brush of the boy’s arm beside him, his mother moving about between the desks — it all went in as he wrote, while whatever his self could contain streamed through.  Having reached the end of one thought, his mind pulsed and out came another.  He wrote alongside himself, the train of words pulling him from the everyday.  Friedrich did not hear his mother speak, did not feel her tap on his shoulder.  He was speaking to himself from another world, and his little current self was copying down the words as if by dictation, and he was not at school, and there was no clock, and it was not really he who was writing. (p.209)

To think that the miracle of this impulse to write was stymied for so many writers in the Soviet era is really very chilling.  As you can read at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, it’s difficult to know how much was hidden or lost. Judging Friedrich as a traitor seems a bit simplistic when we consider the damage done to his creative spirit…

Anna is a photographer, immersed in a long-term project to photograph the orchard on Sophie’s property.  She has had a difficult relationship with Sophie, and her creative ambitions were nurtured by a teacher, Miss Glass.  When the mother-daughter relationship fractures because Sophie doesn’t approve of Anna’s friendship with the adventurous Lisaveta, Anna goes to live with Miss Glass, but soon finds herself constrained there too.

When the novel moves on to the next generation, it’s not immediately clear how the lovers Iris and Robin are connected to what has gone before, but they share the experience of love and loss.  When Robin begins his research for a book about Friedrich, he begins with Operation Barbarossa, an unfathomable experience in scale and brutality, and in itself responsible for damage inflicted on every person born into the invasion of the East or its wake.  Iris is an artist, and Robin’s poems are a catalyst for her paintings:

Robin began to read her the poems he wrote; in response, she embarked on several new canvases.  When he wrote, and she painted, they were holding open a wound, and letting the words and images run freely.  The longer they could keep the wound open, and prevent what flowed from coagulating, the more material they had. (p.243)

In an interview at Female, Lane expresses his hope that readers will understand that Past Life is

…not only about intergenerational trauma, but intergenerational healing. And if the reader can find poetry and beauty in the actual writing, then how the material is treated becomes the message. In my stories the focus is not so much on a message, as on an aesthetic.

There’s a profile of William Lane at In Their Own Write.

Author: William Lane
Title: Past Life
Publisher: Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2021
Cover and book design by Peter Lo
ISBN: 9781925760781, pbk., 267 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge, with thanks to Scott Eathorne


  1. You’re right about not much seems to be available re: Russians in Australia. It would be interesting to learn more. This book sounds like it packs a lot into his 250+ plus pages. I have so many books here and there, partly read I dare not grab another one. I do wish I was a faster reader. This sounds so interesting.


    • LOL I wish I were a faster reader too!
      (Those Covid press conferences eat into my reading time.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the closest to the experience of Russians in WW2 is Conte’s The Tolstoy Estate, though the bigger focus was the German medical unit wasn’t it.

    The other I’ve read is a memoir-biography, and it was about Polish Jews who went to Russia early in the war and remained there during the way, Halina Rubin’s Journey’s with my mother.

    I’ve only read one Lane book. I’d be interested to read another.


    • I loved the Tolstoy Estate and was disappointed (not to mention *extremely* surprised) that it wasn’t shortlisted for the Historical Novel prize.
      But it’s not about Russians here in Australia. (Nor is Dog Boy, also set in Russia, by Eva Hornung). And until I read this novel, Past Life, that I realised that Russian-Australians are not really a presence in Australian literature.
      Which is interesting in itself, because Russian Lit is such a presence in world lit. You would think that the Russian diaspora would have amazing stories to tell, whether about living under the Soviets and adjusting to capitalism in Australia, about the Fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War what that meant to them here, or their experiences of being able to return to their birthplace. A good novel bringing together two generations of Russian-Australians would be a wonderful book to read!


      • I wasn’t sure whether you meant Russians in Australia and the war or the broader topic, so thought I’d throw that in!

        I was a little surprised too but you never can tell can you!


        • Let’s just say I’m not thrilled about their choices…
          Which reminds me, I need to update my post about the award. Just as well I’m in Lockdown and there’s nothing else to do!
          PS I should qualify ‘not being thrilled’. I am pleased about what’s in, I’m just not pleased about what’s been left out.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds really interesting, Lisa. We’re still suffering from the results of the splits caused by Brexit and the like – it was hard enough dealing with friends or family on either side of that divide. And I don’t know that we are actually talking about it, which kind of makes healing the divide harder. As for the Soviet silences, it must have been unbearable to have to keep everything controlled and inside your head. Scary.


    • I have been reading just today about the post-Brexit shortages in the UK, partly caused by a shortage of drivers. According to the article these jobs were formerly taken by Eurocitizens because the pay and conditions were lousy, but 1.4 million of them have gone home. The government is determined that these job vacancies will be filled by Brits…
      Just something else for friends and families to argue about?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] coincidence, it is only two days since I mused on the near-absence of Russians in our Australian literature, and though in this novel the Shamanov family tree is Italian-Russian, the Russian heritage of […]


  5. Children of migrants seem to write more about their own difficulties coming of age ‘between’ two cultures, rather than writing about their parents’ war stories. I’m guessing those stories are written by the third or fourth generation on the back of family research. What you need is a writer with Russian great grandparents willing to do the hard yards.


    • I think you’re right about the current preoccupation with self in the second generation, though that might just be what publishers think we are interested in. But I’m not much interested in memoir and especially not misery memoirs. I was thinking more about Russian characters being included in novels, the way other migrants from other places routinely are a presence in Australian novels.
      So I think what we need is a writer interested in our Russian community and willing to listen to their stories. Visiting Russia made me acutely aware how few Australians go there. We were treated like welcome exotics everywhere from passport control to wait-staff in restaurants. I think our hotel staff had never seen an Australian passport before.
      I was also acutely aware of the climate, that everywhere I trod was covered in deep snow for four months of the year. Not like the brief snowfalls of my English childhood, not like the ski slopes of Australia. Real snow that changes everything for months. We were there in August and there were flowers everywhere. Everywhere! Our tour guide explained that Russians love flowers because they have to do without them for so long. My mythical novelist would have a Russian character marvelling at what we call winter, and the flowers that bloom all year round…


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