Saturday, December 1, 2012

Autumn Laing by Alex Miller

Alex Miller is one of Australia’s most famous and awarded literary writers yet, for some reason, I’d never read any of his work. When, after reading yet another glowing review of his most recent novel Autumn Laing I saw that very same book on display at the library, I figured the universe was telling me it was time to fill this literary hole of knowledge so I picked up the book and took it home with me.

The eponymous Autumn Laing is loosely based on Sunday Reed who, with her husband John, ran a kind of artists community at what is now the Heide Art Gallery. Sunday Reed had an affair with Sidney Nolan, the famous Australian painter (and apparently is rumoured to have painted parts of his work). In Autumn Laing, Autumn is at the end of her life, reflecting on her two great loves, the talented artist Pat Donlan (Sidney Nolan) and the somewhat bland Arthur Laing.

I am deeply torn on my opinion of this book. If I were do a pros and cons list, each column would have the exact same amount of items in it. The language was lovely and the book was very well written. BUT it did seem to take a long time to get anywhere. Some of the paragraphs were over two pages long and occasionally I found myself skimming rather than reading every word. The female characters in this book are written exceptionally well, in fact better than the male characters, which surprised me given that the book is written by a man. In particular, the essence of 80-plus-year-old Autumn Laing is captured spectacularly (although, honestly, I could have done with a little less talk about farting). BUT the character of Autumn Laing reminded me a lot of my own grandmother, with (unfortunately) her tendency to tell really really long and rambling stories with little temporal or internal consistency. The descriptions of Australia and Melbourne were very vivid BUT omigod the foreshadowing was ridiculously excessive. From about the second page we are told repeatedly that something happened in the Australian outback but the ‘something happened’ doesn’t actually happen until 30 pages before the end and, by that stage, I just really wanted it to happen so I wouldn’t have to read the dire foreshadowing anymore! One positive for the book that doesn’t have a negative balancing item is the exploration of the restrictions placed on the women in this book due to their gender. If Sunday Reed had been born in a different time, she would have lived a very different life.

I did enjoy this book. It definitely inspired me to read more about Sunday Reed and the Heide artist colony – I do feel I have a special connection with the gallery since I lost a baby shoe there. It was also a real pleasure to read a literary novel that didn’t contain a scene about a privileged white man masturbating! But I am reluctant to recommend it as it is a very long book which, in itself, is not a bad thing, but it’s a long book that feels like a long book, if that makes any sort of sense! Reading this book took effort and required work and, if you like your books effortless and enrapturing, Autumn Laing is not for you. Also, this book has a lot of characters who commit suicide in it, which may be a trigger for some. 

A solid literary effort - I give it three stars.

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