26 September 2023

A Brief Affair

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By Alex Miller, Allen and Unwin, $32.99.

Alex Miller has twice won Australia’s premier literary award, the Miles Franklin, for The Ancestor Game in 1993 and Journey to the Stone Country in 2003. His fifteenth novel A Brief Affair, shows how he has continued to develop his themes and concerns. It is a character study that asks deep questions about what we make of our lives and what it might take to change.

Frances Egan is an academic at a Melbourne-based college that has set up a satellite campus in the buildings and grounds of an old asylum. While she has a partner and two children, on a work trip to China she spends one life-changing night with another man. On her return, France’s family know that something is different but she keeps the incident to herself, constantly trying to determine how it has changed her life and her relationships. Not long after this, the gardener on the grounds of the college gives her the diary of one of the asylum’s inmates from the 1960s, Valerie, the daughter of a Supreme Court Judge. Fran’s engagement with diary continues her internal journey of questioning and change:

She wanted a definite connection between herself and Valerie. She knew, her instincts knew it, that such a link existed if only it could find its way through her tumult to an expression of itself. She needed time to think. Time to reflect. There was never any time. Then the simplicity of it would unfold. Valerie’s poetry would become her own moment in a landscape of real reality.

Miller explores the questions of how people end up on the path they are on in middle age and what might push them to change. Through Frances he contemplates how to not necessarily throw everything out and start again from scratch but rather, how to slough off the things that make one unhappy or discontent and concentrate on those elements that make one happy or fulfilled. There are no easy answers but Miller is interested in the complex.

A Brief Affair is a compassionate character study. There are no massive flourishes or plot movements. Miller takes readers deep into Fran’s world to understand her and the decisions that she makes. It is beautifully observed and deeply felt, another masterwork from one of Australia’s finest authors.

Over 850 more book reviews can be found on Pile by the Bed.

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