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A Brief Affair by Alex Miller

Australian author Alex Miller is a master of fiction, matching characters with landscapes, capturing scenes with a simplicity and elegance that allow the narrative to flow. Twice winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, thirty years ago with The Ancestor Game and twenty year ago with Journey to the Stone Country, Miller continues to please with every new novel.

Miller’s last two books have strayed into biography with Max in 2020, and autobiography with the hauntingly lyrical The Passage of Love in 2017. In this latest offering his fictional first-person narrator is female, allowing him yet another point of view.

A Brief Affair describes the awakening passions of Dr Fran Egan. A career academic, she has been driven towards achieving her goals of becoming a professor and furthering educational standards for her students. But more and more that career has been about grants, funding and administration and less about teaching. She is the head of a new business school which has taken over an old Victorian building that once housed an asylum. Many academics don’t want to travel to this out-of-Melbourne location. They prefer the urban life, the cafés and the buzz of the city, and visit the new campus only to deliver their lectures.

Things change for Fran when she undertakes a business trip to China, seeking new investment and students. She has an intense romantic encounter with a Chinese academic. A night of passion where few words are exchanged, but the intensity of emotion is everything:

It wasn’t an affair, that sordid word. She was not a woman who had betrayed her husband with another man. She would refuse to name it that. It was simple, and it was pure, unsullied and unknown, a mystery to such things as moral choice. Its source a place beyond the reach of social artifice and hostility. No one would ever understand it except the two of them. No one but they would ever know it. She felt no remorse. She knew in her heart she had done nothing wrong but had done something beautiful and real.

For Fran it is a secret she will always withhold from her husband and family, something just her own. They, however, notice the change in her ‘after China’. Something is different.

He was ten and here was his mother lying to him, and he knew his mother was lying to him, and he didn’t know how to sort things out with her. It was no good her excusing herself by saying children don’t understand. Children do understand. Children sense things at once. They understand everything. Children understand truth more clearly than grown-ups. They have highly tuned antennae and resister the smallest changes in the mood of the family. Their thoughts are not cluttered with ambitions. Children fear the death of their parents. They may not know exactly what’s going on, but they know something is going on.

Fran considers telling her husband Tom about what happened in China, but knows how destructive that would be:

Lying in bed later, wide awake beside Tom, she returned to their conversation and to her memory. If Jargal Bati had said to her that night in the hotel room in Hefei, This is love, isn’t it? she would have replied, Yes, that is what this is. How to tell Tom that? She understood it. She believed it. But how to justify such things to someone else, even to someone you loved, as she loved Tom? There was a limit. That night in Hefei she was not the mother her children knew. They would not have known her. And if she were to bring it all out and lay it before Tom, he would get tangled up in the net of it. They both would. What a mess it would be. A bomb would go off and blow them apart. Blow them to bits. Body parts. The plain truth would become something untrue. Truth was too much. That was the trouble. We can’t have the truth. Who can live with it? The facts are too bitter. We’re better off without it, without them. Things are possible without the truth. With it, nothing would ever hold together for long. Especially not marriage. Once it gets into your head, truth is a carnivore lodged in the brain. It eats its way into everything. How would you ever get it out again once it had made its fatal entry into you? You would be eaten up by it day and night. We live by the myth, not by the truth. Our lovely, private, cosy, reassuring myths. Our hopeless dreams.

Alongside the dilemmas in her personal life, Fran’s career is being stretched to the limit. Her one salvation from all this is Joseph, the old gardener and handyman who has worked in the building since he was a boy. Joseph gifts Fran an old diary which he found behind the antique shelving in her office when it was being renovated. It is a diary of a former inmate of the asylum, Valerie, and talks of her love for another woman. The poetry and the sentiments touch Fran deeply, and she attempts to find out more about the life of this remarkable young woman. Miller introduces this story subtly and allows its importance to grow within the lives of Fran’s whole family. The diary serves both as an inspiration to Fran and an escape from the issues that confront her.

Miller is a master of drawing characters whom he always places in a landscape that is both real and which wraps around them to become an essential part of their story. Use of weather, seasons, plants and birds subtly collide to bring the narrative alive.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Allen & Unwin


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