Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 8, 2022

A Brief Affair (2022), by Alex Miller

A new book from Alex Miller is always an event on a booklover’s calendar.  Awarded the Melbourne Prize for Literature in 2012 for his body of work, which now comprises 13 novels, a memoir, essays and short stories, Miller has won multiple awards.  His third novel The Ancestor Game (1992) won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Miles Franklin Award — which he won for the second time with Journey to the Stone Country (2002).  He’s also won the Christina Stead Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards twice…for Conditions of Faith (2000) and Lovesong (2009, see my review). 

My favourites of his mid-career novels are Landscape of Farewell,(2007) and Coal Creek (2013). All his works explore the stories of others to engage his readers’ empathy — sometimes the simple working folk of rural and remote Australia — and sometimes sophisticates from academia.  What gives these contrasting milieu authenticity is that Miller has a foot in both these camps.  Born in England, he began his working life as a farm labourer, and after migrating alone to Australian when he was sixteen, he worked as a horse-breaker and a ringer, while he studied for university entrance.  And then, in complete contrast to this rugged outdoor life, he taught creative writing at tertiary level for many years.

A Brief Affair is set northwest of Melbourne where academic Dr Frances Egan takes the train each day from her family’s farm near Newstead, to work at a university campus that used to be the old Sunbury Asylum.  Architecturally splendid, the building is heritage-listed, but still retains its original gloominess, which you can see here in the video, where the footage is accompanied by some suitably atmospheric music.

The sound of the heavy outer door crashing to behind her echoed through the void of the building.  There was a faintly familiar smell of something chill and undisturbed in the air of the wide foyer.  From where did she remember this smell?  A residue of something from the past that refused to leave the fabric of this place, the ghosts of the once-upon-a-time lunatics refusing to be forgotten.  There was no one about.  She crossed the foyer and climbed the broad stone stairs to the upper floor.  Her runners made a faint squeaky sound in the empty building.  In the beginning, when she had worn heels to work, thinking herself then a kind of goddess, emboldened by her sense of her own success, her heels had struck the desolate silence of the old Welsh slate into life, walking sympathetic murmurs, murmurs of disquiet that belonged to an era of long ago.  The past.  She would put her heels on once she was in her office.  Her runners would go into her satchel for later.  With runners on her feet no one heard her approaching.  It was no wonder they called them sneakers. (p.28)

Dr Egan appears to have it all.  She’s on her way to a professorship, she has a loving family and a comfortable home in one of the loveliest parts of Victoria.  But a one-night stand at a conference in China upends everything and a mid-life crisis is upon her.  Even the children notice that something is wrong, but she is determined to keep her betrayal to herself because she feels that it is somehow sacred.  Back on deck in Australia, she moons around with her memories and she exoticises this lover by calling him her ‘Mongol Warrior’ and ‘a horseman of the steppe‘ and she exalts the clichéd conference tryst as ‘pure’.

Hmmm…

#NoteToSelf We are here to learn about the minds of others, not to sit in judgement!

Her disenchantment erupts into disillusionment with her work.  She is bogged down with dealing with an anti-discrimination claim for Occupational Health And Safety, and pushed to exasperation by her bullying boss Skänder and his impulsive administration style for which she gets the blame.  The agendas are always the same, and they never get anywhere.

Matters to be discussed: induction of new faculty member; cooperative education, a new model needed; discounts for staff to allow for research, admin, grant writing, supervision; course leadership, codes of conduct; quality assurance; prepare for enrolment sessions; timetabling; conference funding policy; overseas travel to offshore campuses.

How many times had they met over these issues?  How much talk had there been? How many plans and expressions of hopes?  The steady erosion of her vision. And after it all, here they were, covering the same issues yet again.  Nothing done.  No one cared.  No one really cared.  The culture of the university decayed and no one objected. Not seriously.  Everyone complained.  Complaint was the only thing they had left in common.  No one cared enough to risk their job.  How to bring about cultural change without personal sacrifice? (p.40)

She wants to quit.  Of course she wants to quit… don’t we all at some stage? My fantasies never got beyond abandoning the morning commute and taking the Princes Highway along the eastern seaboard to wherever I landed, but Fran’s fantasies are more exotic.

He and she might travel together by Bactrian camel across the deserts of Mongolia.  She would learn his language.  They would discover the haunts of snow leopards.  They would hold hands and brew tea and make love in the evening at their camp, the whisper of the desert wind. (p.41)

Apart from Dr Egan’s somewhat overwrought state of mind, this novel went awry for me with Fran’s conflation of a 21st century one-night stand and mid 20th century lesbianism as forms of forbidden love.  Fran comes across an old diary written by one of the inmates, who was incarcerated away from her lover who then committed suicide in despair.  Valerie Sommers’ life is a tragedy, forced upon her by the social norms of her time. Her diary reveals her anguish at being parted from the one she loves, but in that era she had no option but to endure.  But Fran, (assuming that her Chinese lover shares her passion beyond that one night), has choices.  They may be unpalatable choices, not to mention hard on her rather nice husband and children, but that is not the same as being locked up for years for failing to conform to societal norms.  Fran knows this, but she still seeks a point of connection, even going so far as to try to seek out other aspects of Valerie’s life.

Reading about past cruelties imposed on the LGBTIQ+ community always makes me angry, so I didn’t have much compassion left for Fran and her mid-life crisis. So no, this novel wasn’t satisfying reading for me.

Kim at Reading Matters reviewed it too, noting Miller’s insight into the female psyche:

Miller is exceptionally good at nuance and his well-drawn female characters are authentic, flawed and believable. He has incredible insight into the female psyche and the issues with which women grapple on a day-to-day basis:

Joseph Cummins at The Guardian notes also that the domestic drama is also linked to an homage to the power of reading and writing because Fran comes to see how writing enabled Valerie to understand the adversity of her life. 

Author: Alex Miller
Title: A Brief Affair
Cover design by Sandy Cull
Cover image: Harvest Landscape, by David Moore, 2022
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781761066573, pbk., 264 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


Responses

  1. I’ve never warmed to Miller, unfairly probably, as I had him down as writing about Outback stuff that was done better a century ago. Obviously an urban female academic is the opposite of my preconception, but not sure that’s where I’d want to start either.

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    • If you haven’t read it, I’d suggest Coal Creek. I think it’s one of his best.

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  2. Thanks for the link, Lisa. And yea, you’re right, you can’t really equate Frances’ “suffering” with that of Valerie’s. But I think Miller is just thrashing out the unintended consequences of forbidden love and how, in Frances’ case anyway, how it impacts your sense of self.

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    • Yes, but in a very specific way. I imagine that a betrayal of this type would make a character feel guilty, whether she ‘fesses up or not. But that’s not what Frances feels. She feels ennobled by what she’s done, which is the alteration to her sense of self that enables her to separate herself from her existing life and relationships and triggers changes with everything else (the job, the kids, Joseph etc). I couldn’t work out whether Miller was representing narcissism, loss of moral compass, irrelevance of moral compass in the modern world, women refusing to do what’s expected, or something else.

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      • The way I read it was that Frances had been consumed by motherhood and had lost her “erotic self” but this one night stand made her realise that there was a whole part of her life that she had lost touch with. I suspect most blokes wouldn’t even think twice about how an affair would affect their being as a father. But yea, it would be interesting to know what point Miller was trying to make beyond the idea that women are complex beings!

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        • Ah well, ambiguity can be a good thing in a novel, and if this is Miller’s way of ‘fessing up that he doesn’t really understand women, why not?

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