Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Alex Miller is a very good writer. Previously I have reviewed Journey to the Stone Country here. To prepare to write Conditions of Faith, he received a 4 year fellowship from the Australia Council. What a great initiative to support writers like Alex Miller to write their engrossing and rewarding novels.
Here’s a short summary that may spoil some of the suspense but it’s really difficult to discuss this book without revealing some facts that lead to the main themes.
The novel follows a female protagonist named Emily. Her father is a university professor and he wanted her to take a scholarship at Oxbridge after her first class honours degree in Australia. Emily lost interest in learning at a distance about the history of the ancient European civilizations without any context or field sites to visit.
She floated in a malaise of disinterest until an architect from France visited her father. Georges was intently focused on winning the tender to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He lifted his gaze from his ambitions for long enough to become enamored by Emily. Her mother was keen to have her married and her father was appalled. After a super short courtship Emily decided that the opportunity to travel to Paris was too alluring to reject Georges’ proposal.
Georges worked feverishly and neglected Emily but they already didn’t have a bond so his work addiction isn’t the sole issue. She became friends with one of his two close friends, Antoine, who was born in Tunisia. Antoine is a mysterious character. We catch glimpses of his life but, as Emily states, even Emily doesn’t know him. He is an asthete and constantly chasing love.
Following a delicious interaction under the Chartres cathedral with the priest responsible for ripening the bishop’s fruit, Emily is racked with guilt and doubt. So is the priest.
When she becomes slightly unwell, Emily travels to Tunisia with Antoine to rest. There she becomes fascinated by the story of Perpetua, a young woman who was captured in Carthage and gave up her baby to her father before Perpetua was executed. Perpetua’s story was claimed as a Christian martyrdom but when talking with Hakim, a Tunisian Arab archeologist, Emily begins for the first time to doubt history and to understand that history is recorded in different ways by different people with different agendas. Under the mentorship of a female American archeologist, Emily’s mind is set on fire by the desire to research Perpetua’s story.
Emily is an interesting character; not thoroughly likeable, which makes her believable and familiar. I really felt sorry for her at several points in the book and wished that she could have a female friend but Miller didn’t give her one, only a servant, a mother-in-law and a mentor. The novel ends in an astonishing way, by any metric, and especially considering it’s set in the 1920s. I still haven’t come to terms with the ending but I’m impressed by Emily’s dedication and passion and she certainly doesn’t ask for pity.
As in Lovesong, Miller set part of Conditions of Faith in Paris, during a similar time to when Hemingway was living in Paris. I don’t tire of reading about Paris so that was definitely part of the allure for me.
There was a florist’s shop on the corner. On the footpath outside the shop tall green buckets were filled with fresh blooms and stacked in tiers on wooden racks. The air was heavy with the sweet perfume of spring flowers. They stopped to admire the spectacle. ‘So, Madame Elder,’ (Antoine) said, ‘you arrive for the very first time in Paris during. .. the month… when trees unfold and the womb of nature opens! Is this another commonplace of existence or are we to see in it a portent? April is from the Latin aperire, is it not? To unfold and to disclose that which has remained hidden.’
…they stopped at a café opposite the Métro entrance in the Avenue Bosquet. They sat outside at a table in the cold sun. The tables along the busy street were crowded and noisy with conversation.
In 2003 we arrived from Australia in Paris in March and I remember how cold it was compared to Australian early Autumn. I also recall watching the bulbs push up and begin to bloom and the leaf buds unfold on the trees. It was my first experience of a European cool climate spring and it was lovely.
Part of the novel is set in Melbourne, Australia (a lovely city) in summer. Miller’s descriptions are evocative and transport me through time and space. I thought of my own summers in Australia at the beach when I read this:
The air was still and hot, the bay luminous and flat in the afternoon sunlight… Already the cooling effect of her swim was wearing off and the heat began to press down on her… she started up the beach toward the tea-trees and the line of gaily painted bathing boxes.
Part of the novel is set in Tunisia. I’m yet to travel to north Africa but I often travel to the Middle East and I have erudite Arab friends from Tunisia so I was intrigued to read about it prior to the expulsion of the French. This passage describes Emily’s first visit to Antoine’s family home in Tunisia and it brought to my mind the courtyard homes that I have visited.
Tall timber doors painted blue and elaborately tiled archways led off a hallway into other regions of the house. They went through a low arch in the right-hand wall and … emerged into a courtyard. The courtyard was overlooked on all sides by blue-painted shuttered windows and doors and was open to the sky. At its centre there was a fountain fashioned from shallow fluted copper disks… Four slim columns… supported a timber structure, which held aloft the python limbs of an ancient wysteria vine, its leaves casting the courtyard into a dappled shade. At the foot of each column clay amphora filled with scarlet-and-green geraniums were set in iron casques.
Emily forges an unlikely friendship with Hakim and when she asks him why his friend Ahmed didn’t talk to her, he said
Ahmed is very correct… For him to know you in any way without your husband being present would be to insult you.
This reminds me of my friend from Makkah. He told me that we can’t be friends because I’m not his sister or wife and he’s never had a female friend, so he thinks of me as his sister. Some Arabs follow a strict code of gender segregation and do not dare to interact with each other. When I travel in the Arab world I become some sort of honorary man and the same happens to Emily with Hakim. Hakim is an interesting character and I found him familiar and believable from the Arabs that I know. He is passionately Tunisian and pro independence from France. He’s extremely intelligent and well educated and I would love to meet him and become his friend!
This is a great novel. I cried, I was captivated, I cared about what would happen and I wished that I’d read it more slowly to better appreciate the descriptions but I was reading in short blocks (I’m a mother) while travelling and the narrative was too compelling for me to want to slow down and dwell on the descriptions! There are many themes in the book that I haven’t discussed here. I’d love to know what you thought of the book!