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After reading Lovesong by Alex Miller with my book group, I was enamoured with this skillful writer and snaffled up two of his books second hand. On a recent trip to the USA, I had ample travel time to voraciously read Journey to the Stone Country.
Miller has a rare talent for a male writer of being able to write complex, flawed and interesting female characters that are neither beautiful, love interests nor victims but instead self-determining, fully developed people. That sentence sounds dreadfully sexist but I do feel that most male writers struggle in that realm and that offends my inner feminist.
Miller begins the story in the home of Melbourne-based academic Annabelle who is 42 and discovers that her beloved husband (“Dearest”) has abandoned her for an affair with his honeyed, golden, gilded, cafe au lait skinned honours student.
She could see herself in the mirror… A middle-aged woman… She had believed herself to be cherished by him safe from reproach within the privacy of their life; loved, cared for, at liberty with him to display her faults, her weaknesses, her shameful blemishes… He had discarded her.
Passages like that (and stories shared by women I know) keep me awake at night and are good enough motivation to keep me from eating grains or sugar in an attempt to remain attractive. Annabelle flees their home, her job and the city of their life together for tropical North Queensland where she grew up on a cattle property. She contacts an ex-colleague, Susan, who is an archaeologist and has started her own company to perform cultural surveys for companies seeking development permits. Cultural surveys are a new development in Australia designed to protect areas of cultural significance (especially indigenous). I recall when I was studying Geography at university, cultural studies were beginning to become more common.
Through Susan, Annabelle returns to the country of her childhood and meets former stockman Bo Rennie. Bo descends from the Murri tribe of indigeneous people of that district. It’s through Bo that Annabelle discovers the disgusting atrocities perpetrated by Anglo-Australian farmers (including her grandfather) against indigenous people in the district. Miller introduces themes of displacement of indigeneous people, anger and retribution, reliance on social security and shame and atonement. He is unflinching in the scene with Panya but he allows Bo and Annabelle to regroup and shed their hairshirts.
When Annabelle ponders the vast difference between the approach of Bo and his clan of using the language of signs and silence compared to her culture of constant interrogation I enjoyed this passage:
Her father’s encouragement from the beginning had been to inquire into the reasons for everything… the tireless interrogation of facts and phenomena… the very foundation of her profession…
When Bo and Annabelle embark on a cultural survey of a property that is significant to the history of both of their families, there is an uncomfortable scene when Annabelle considers the old house to be as significant to the cultural heritage of Anglo-Australian farmers as any site that Bo might discover. Eventually she realizes that the process of preserving a ‘historic’ house necessarily strips the site of its original significance and makes something false. Until that point I had felt frustration with Annabelle for her nostalgia and cultural imperialism.
The weakest aspect of the book for me is the way that Annabelle and Bo mistake their lust for one another as a sign of a probability of a lasting relationship. Considering how few words they share it is difficult to believe that once the lust wears down, in 2-3 months, that learned Annabelle will be satisfied with a man as reitcent with conversation as Bo. However that did not stop me from greatly enjoying this book. At least Annabelle didn’t go with Bo and Arner to see the stones because that would have been a bit much to take.
Miller’s fiction has a mystifying power that is always far more than the sum of its parts . . . his footsteps – softly, deftly, steadily – take you places you may not have been, and their sound resonates for a long time.’ Andrea Stretton, Sydney Morning Herald.
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