Alex Miller has been named as a finalist in the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature, a rich award given triennially to a Victorian author for a body of work. It is hardly surprising that a writer who has twice won the Miles Franklin Award and frequently been the recipient of, or short-listed for, other prizes should be among this group of contenders; Lovesong is Miller’s ninth novel since the publication of Watching the Climbers on the Mountain in 1988. He was then in his early fifties, had written poetry and plays, helped found the Anthill Theatre, and taught creative writing. The sustained period of prose fiction which followed has earned the author not only celebrity but affection.
While there is great variety in Miller’s novels, readers know that they can expect thoughtful treatment of significant but non-apocalyptic themes, among them attachment to land or country; displacement to new settings; deeply valued family life, often in conflict with other, equally honourable aspirations, such as the artistic vocation. Few people, of course, choose books for the sake of theme alone; what is most reliable is Miller’s gift for inclusiveness. As readers, we feel instantly drawn into the lives of his characters, at home in their homes.
For this reason, I am willing to bet that Miller is a favourite with book clubs – far from a put-down. Where would literary fiction be without its constant readers? These stalwarts must be the bread and butter of the publishing industry, tackling each month or so a work not necessarily of their personal or preferred choice. Committed to the literary ‘fair go’, they will bravely take on the likes of Booker prize-winners that have confounded the critics and puzzled the public. But how relieved they are when the choice falls on a work that is both sympathetic and stimulating, inclusive and interesting, thought-provoking yet able to be read in bed. The faithful will feel well rewarded by Lovesong.