First up, I must say that I’m a big fan of Alex Miller’s novels, with my favourites being Landscape of Farewell and Lovesong. This new book contains both short fiction and true stories about the inspiration for these novels and in particular the characters that inspired the stories. It also tells me lots about Miller’s own background, a childhood in London just after the war and his move aged 16 to work on a farm on Exmoor in the West of England. The back-story gave me the reasons that he left England at 18 for Australia and why he had such a strong longing to find the real outback.
As well as the true stories behind Miller’s books, The Simplest Words also contains a few pieces of fiction, the best of which I thought was The Rule of the First Prelude. As always Miller’s characters are beautifully drawn with their foibles and worries pinpointed on the page. Marie is a social worker in a hospital where she is a witness to a suicide and a murder that unhinge her hold on the present and make her question her life and her loneliness. When her boss insists that she take six months off work, she is ready for a new chapter in her life. It is a 45 page long story in which parents play a bigger than normal part. A mother who abandoned both husband and 3 year-old daughter, forcing them to flee from Paris to Sydney. As the father is dying he shows his now 17 year-old daughter a letter from her mother which changes everything she believed. I love the gritty realism of Miller’s characters.
All writers draw heavily on their real experiences and Miller’s last novel, Coal Creek, featured a very special horse called Mother. It was wonderful to read a short piece in The Simplest Words all about the real Mother, and know that she was a horse that he picked out in his early years as an outback stockman.
As well as many personal reminiscences, The Simplest Words also has some recommendations. I have never read Romulus, My Father by Raimond Gaita, but having read what Miller has to say about it and his friendship with the author, I will certainly find myself a copy.
As an avid reader of Alex Miller, this book has certainly filled in many gaps about his life that I never knew. His deep interest and almost reverence for the indigenous people of Australia has always impressed me, but even more so now that I know his background was South London, not South Australia. I put much of his empathy and knowledge down to the friends he has made and cultivated. They have provided him with rare insights and rich subject matter.
The book has made me want to find copies of Miller’s first two or three books, the only ones I have yet to read, to complete my picture of this extraordinarily gifted writer.