Ken is a writer, who has retired and is a bit lost as to what to do to fill his time. Returning from a trip to Venice, he discovers that the inconsiderate adult daughter with whom he lives has not bought him milk to buy tea. Feeling despair, he walks out into the streets of Carlton to the local supermarket. These streets have changed so much over his lifetime he can hardly even recognise the suburb or his place in it. Just when I was starting to think "Oh no, not another story about a white male angsting over his place in the world," Ken is distracted by a new bakery that has opened in his street. (note to Franzen et al. - they key to avoiding the boring discussions of white men who have lost their way is clearly pastry). Smelling of sugar and sweetness, the shop is inviting and warm. The woman behind the counter is arrestingly beautiful but Ken is certain he can see sadness in her eyes. He is intrigued and once again feels a part of the suburb in which he lives.
The woman behind the shop counter is married to a man, John. Ken sees John all over the place - in the library, in the pool, playing with his daughter, always reading. One day Ken asks John to join him for a cup of coffee and, over the pool-flavoured beverage, John starts to tell the story of how the couple arrived in Melbourne and the sadness in his beautiful wife's eyes.
I have made no secret of the fact that I find stories about middle-aged white men dealing with the problems of life and their place in it incredibly boring but John's story is not about himself. He takes us back to the Paris of 30 years ago; not the City of Love depicted so often in movies by its outskirts, the working class suburbs that drive the city. Houria and Dom run Cafe Dom, a small cafe that feeds the workers of the local abattoir their lunch. When Dom dies of a heart attack, Houria writes to her brother in El Djem. Her brother, understanding her deep and profound grief, send her his favourite daughter, Sabiha. Sabiha and Houria work together beautifully and Cafe Dom becomes a huge success. One wet and cold day, an Australian man seeks refuge from the weather in the Cafe. He and Sabiha fall in love.
I have just summarised the first 60-ish pages of the book. Despite the small amount of WMA (white male angst), it's a lovely story well told. The characters of Houria and Sabiha are well drawn and the foundation of their relationship is solid and feels true. However, after John meets Sabiha and they get married, the rest of the book is quite frankly stupid. The increasingly unlikable characters act in ridiculous and silly ways and, really, bored the crap out of me. Alex Miller is a beautiful writer and there are moments where the language in the novel is sublime but it wouldn't hurt him to actually chat to a woman or two, if only to realise it is possible that women can actually have more than one desire or skill just like men can. Two stars.