Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 19, 2022

Loveland, by Robert Lukins

If anything in this review raises issues for you,
help is available at White Ribbon Australia.

To learn to recognise the signs of coercive control and how to get help, visit Relationships Australia. 


It only took a day and a half to read Robert Lukin’s new novel Loveland—I couldn’t put it down.

The last time I read a novel as harrowing in its depiction of coercive control was The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower.  In that novel two sisters fall prey to a vile man called Felix who terrorises his wife and her sister into anticipating his every wish, for fear of punishment. The younger can do nothing but watch, entrapped herself by the other’s compliance.

In Lukin’s novel, May grows up in Australia as an indifferent witness to her widowed grandmother’s pathological meekness without recognising that she has inherited the same vulnerability.  It is not until Casey dies, and her mother Rosie inherits Casey’s small property in Nebraska, that May finds the means to transcend her own submission to the vile man she refers to as ‘the husband’.

As in real life where coercive control hides behind closed doors and the pretence of a satisfactory marriage, most of the violence in Loveland is off-stage.

We just become how and who we are and no-one is beyond that.  He had been handsome and charming, but when she looked back it was never enough. The story could never explain itself.  She came to realise that the marks on her body were not the worst of it.  There is physical pain and it is unbearable in the moment but the moment is at least brief.  It was the unending struggle for air.  This was the worst of of it and the thing that never passed.  The fear that stole her every breath. (p.43)

The intergenerational poverty is muted too as we see in May’s sceptical response to the executor who explains about the inheritance:

‘So she had money?’
‘No,’ Karl said.  ‘Well, a little.  Three thousand and sixty-eight dollars in a savings account. A little jewellery.’
‘And twenty acres of Nebraskan property?’
‘Twenty-four and a house.  There’s nothing particularly strange about it.  Unbelievable as it is, people die every day, then their stuff gets handed out.  There are inheritances.  People inherit.  It’s not just in Dickens.  It happens all the time.’
‘Not to us it doesn’t.’ (p.8-9)

Rosie, witness to her daughter’s entrapment, wants this inheritance to offer a new start, but it is the solicitor Karl who relays this desire to MayOn the way home afterwards, May’s mind should have been full with this dubious idea of a Nebraskan property

…it should be seeming like a lottery win.  All the things she should have been thinking.  Of her grandmother and what the woman had kept hidden.  Her mother and her silence on the subject.  What selling up should mean.  The complications and simplicity.

May, though, thought only of what Karl had said of this being a new start. The thing he had hinted at so many times before in his not-meddling-but-definitely-meddling way.  He was speaking of May’s husband.  New start meaning that May could take her son and leave Patrick.  (p.12-13)

Alternating storylines reveal Casey’s back story in the 1950s and May’s venture to Nebraska in the present. May arrives to find that the inheritance is an abandoned boathouse that abuts a toxic lake, subject of a class action against polluters.  She finds herself vulnerable to other kinds of coercive control:  other neighbours don’t want her to sell because the success of their claim depends on their properties being unsaleable.

The distance from Patrick, however, enables the emergence of a different woman.  Lukins deftly reveals May’s escape: she leaves Queensland with his confident torrent of demands and instructions in her ears, but cocooned in the safety of the plane, May is consumed with the ecstasy of leaving the earth…

And Patrick?  What would register on his face once he realised that she had escaped?  Because that was exactly what was happening.  Only then, with the plane’s wheels rolling under her, could she allow her mind to accept the truth of it.  She was leaving him.  He couldn’t know but it had already happened.  (p.44)

It’s not as easy as that of course.  We see also that mobile phones and the ease of modern travel offer new ways for abusive partners to exert control, and we know that not all abusive partners are dealt a fate that releases their victims from their threats.  Too many Australian women have learned that to their cost.  Our society needs to deal urgently with the provision of safe places for refuge and a judicial system that intervenes and protects more effectively.

But we see that May—who’d kept everything hidden from the kindly counsellor who tried to help her but who could not penetrate May’s sense of shame—has the clear air in Nebraska to respond differently to offers of help.  She responds to Jean who befriended, betrayed and then empowered Casey so long ago, and to Officer Carter, who wants to do her job in a society that doesn’t enable her to do it.  Both of them earn redemption of a sort, but it’s an Old Testament form of justice of moral ambiguity at best.

Loveland depicts courage and strength emerging from victimhood but it’s not a hopeful story.  I can’t see how May’s relationship with her son could ever transcend what was done; I can’t imagine any peace of mind for her.  Francis has adopted his toxic father’s behaviours; but she will have to adopt her grandmother’s silence.

Kim reviewed it too, at Reading Matters, and so has Theresa.


PS 3/4/22 I’ve been listening to podcasts from Adelaide Writers’ Week and one of them is pertinent to the moral ambiguities of Loveland.  Chaired by Collette Snowden, the session featured authors Jane Caro and Debra Oswald talking about their new novels The Mother and The Family Doctor.

This was the promo for the session:

The strong female protagonists in Jane Caro’s The Mother and Debra Oswald’s The Family Doctor take matters into their own hands. Debra’s Paula is a dedicated suburban GP, devastated by the murder of a friend and her children by their estranged husband and father. Jane’s Miriam is a successful businesswoman whose life is upended when her daughter’s marriage turns sour. These provocative, urgent novels brim with fury, grief and deep love as they explore what happens when you are tested to the limit, and ask when is it justified to fight fire with fire?

In the discussion about family violence and coercive control, the authors revealed these novels as transgressive fantasies.  The novels ask, if someone you care about is at risk, what do you do?  The law is clear: killing a perpetrator when it’s not in self-defence is illegal; you can’t kill someone to protect someone else.  Jane Caro channelled her rage about a recent case of a murdered woman and their children, and she wondered how it would feel to be the mother of the murdered woman.  She thought about what she would want to do, and was shocked by and then intrigued by her own response.  Both authors suggested that the redistribution of power in their novels offer a kind of ‘reader satisfaction’ even though the choices involve sacrifice and the protagonists paying a price for what they do.

So now I think that in Loveland Lukins was exploring the murderous rage that can be a response to family violence and coercive control.  His protagonists’ actions are not meant to be interpreted as ‘justice’, but rather as a recognition of their desire to be free of fear.

Author: Robert Lukins
Title: Loveland
Cover design: Sandy Cull
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781760879846, pbk., 335 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


Responses

  1. Thanks for the link Lisa!

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  2. Snap! Thanks for linking to my review. I loved this novel and read it a few weekends ago… the only bit I was unsure about was the way May’s difficult husband no longer became a problem (sorry… trying to be vague so not to spoil things for people who might read this comment but haven’t yet read the book) as for so many women this kind of resolution would never happen. But I liked the dual storylines, the setting and the nuance in the issues raised. Best of all, he provides no excuses for the men.

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    • Yes, exactly, that was my problem too, not only that it was unlikely, but also that…. um…it was morally dubious even though, as you say, ‘no excuses’.
      But his writing is superb, a once-in-a-generation kind of craftsman, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I still have to finish See what you made me do, which is such a chilling analysis of coercive control. I’m glad you mention The watchtower – such an unforgettable book.

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    • Yes, I’ve never been able to get that Felix out of my head.

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  4. I loved The Watchtower and I see our library has a copy of this on order, so I’ve reserved it – if it’s anything near as good as the Harrower I’ll be very happy! It does sound compelling. I once worked with a lovely woman whose husband had succeeded in keeping her quiet about his abuse by threatening not her, but her parents – she said she had no doubt he would have carried out his threats. That was an evilly clever tactic on his part I suppose, but how cruel!

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    • Honestly, it makes you wonder about the upbringing of low-lifes like that …

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  5. Well I went ahead and read your review kind of interested because of the inheritance of farmland stuff but when I went to check it’s not even published here in the US. Oh well – wait and see – it’s not like I don’t have piles to read. LOL!

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    • Yes, I’m sorry, it’s only available at the moment in Australia.

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  6. Have heard nothing but good things about this book but I’m a bit reluctant – will it be too sad? (that might sound strange given my penchant for grief-lit but there’s a difference between grief-sad and trauma-sad – I can’t take trauma-sad if it’s too descriptive, and if little kids are involved). What do you think? Should I read it?

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    • There’s no little kids…but it’s difficult to say…
      PS the next day…. the thing is, there are books like this which are good to raise awareness, but not so good if they bring memories of things you’d rather forget.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s not about my own memories but more because I hear about a lot of trauma at work and I have to be mindful of my capacity. Again, I know that sounds odd given that I do so much grief work and then read about it, but somehow that feels different. I have a close friend who reads very similar books to me – I might get her to read it first 😬

        Liked by 1 person

        • Good idea.
          I’ve been surprised to find that child abuse stories are triggering for me since my retirement. I’ve never been abused, but I’ve taught kids who were, and while I could deal with that when at work — because, I suppose, at an unconscious level I felt that I was doing something by being a nurturing caring teacher providing a safe space — but in retirement, the horror of it is not something I can deal with very well.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Yes, I think it (vicarious trauma) can take you by surprise in that way. Like you, I’ve never been abused however I hear some terrible stories at work, and I manage my capacity for that carefully – basically I will keep my energy for clients, not spend it on fictional characters!

            Liked by 1 person

            • That makes sense…
              There are plenty of other things to read about!

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              • The two of you have perfectly summed up why I also do not read trauma fiction. My brain is a fog atm, so I appreciate your succinct thoughtful comments.

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  7. This sounds like a tough but very interesting read, raising lots of (sadly) timely issues about domestic abuse.
    I have a copy of Harrower’s The Watch Tower, which I’ve been meaning to read for ages . . . it seems that it might be equally good.

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    • Harrower is wonderful. Everything she’s written is first-class!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This sounds like an absorbing and also rather harrowing read. I just finished Charlotte Mendelson’s “The Exhibitionist” which is also about coercive control: there’s a lot of it about at the moment!

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    • HI Liz, yes, I agree, there is a lot about this at the moment… maybe best to read something different before tackling another one, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have just finished reading it and, like you, I could not put it down. Like Lukins’s first novel, ‘The Everlasting Sunday’, it creates a feeling of dread and menace, but the writing is so beautiful that, despite the grim subject matter, it is a joy to read. My only complaint is not with the author but with the publisher. As you say, the book is not available outside Australia. I was able to order it directly from bookdepository.com but ended up paying €20.80 plus €10 customs duty for a book with an ugly cover whose text appeared to have been printed on lavatory paper. Allen and Unwin should hang their heads in shame. (UQP did a very fine job with ‘The Everlasting Sunday’.) Why is there no e-book version?

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    • Oh my goodness, that is a lot of money! It’s a fine compliment to Lukins that you were willing to spend so much to have his new book, but surely, it shouldn’t be necessary.
      I’ve just had a look at the BD site, and it’s only $27.94 for Australian customers, so I’m guessing that most of what you paid was the cost of postage from Australia. (Which, as I know from posting presents to my grandnieces in the UK, is astronomical.) As you say, an e-Book is the obvious solution to this, I wonder why A&U haven’t made one available.

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      • At today’s rate, AUS$27.94 is €18.82, so the extra for postage was very little. I use BD because the postage rates from Australia are so low. A friend recently sent me Mandy Beaumont’s ‘The Furies’ from Australia to France, as a gift, and I noticed that the postage he paid was almost as much as the list price (around AUS$20), so I can’t complain. I agree that Australian Post rates are ridiculous. (When my Australian friends visit me here, they can’t believe how cheap postage is in France.) Before Covid I always had a long list of books to buy during my trips to your beautiful country!

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        • LOL Your friends should surely know that postage costs reflect the fact that freight from Australia has to traverse the equivalent of most of the countries in Europe before even getting out of the country. You know this because you’ve flown over the vast deserts of Central Australia to get here! Plus, we in the city (cheerfully) subsidise the cost of delivering mail to remote outback places, thousands of miles from anywhere.
          But postage costs aside, there is a bigger issue. Australia is a long way from everywhere and freight costs for imports and exports is only going to get worse not better. So smart business operators who want an international market to offset the fact that the local market is so small, need to have a digital export strategy. Australia needs to be exporting digital products: things that can be zapped over the internet for free rather than put on a ship or a plane: ‘recipes’ for pharmaceuticals; software; films, video games, cartoons and music; online education, primary, secondary, tertiary and postgrad plus ‘lifelong learning’ products like Duolingo; and yes, obvious to you and me but not to some of our more insular publishers, books!

          Liked by 1 person

  10. I love this kind of overwhelmingly engaging story. And this kind of relationship is fascinating, when it’s depicted realistically and credibly.

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    • It’s a wonderful thing when a book absorbs you utterly until you get to the end, and you emerge blinking into the sunlight trying to adjust back to the real world.

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