The Passage of Love by Alex Miller


Reviewed by Rod McLary

Alex Miller is one of Australia’s finest writers – although like Patrick White before him, Alex Miller was born in England.  He came to Australia as a teenager and worked on a property in North Queensland.  His experiences there inform much of his writing as it is from working on the land with Aboriginal ringers and stockmen that he developed his deep love and understanding of the country and its indigenous people.  One only needs to read Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country, Landscape of Farewell or Coal Creek to appreciate the depth of this understanding.  It is, however, an understanding which does not claim ownership of indigenous culture and history.  As he says in The Passage of Love: a web of belief of the country and its ways I would never share and had no wish to trespass on.  The story belonged to Frankie.  It was never to belong to me. [292]

The Passage of Love is – in Miller’s own words – a mixture of memory and imagination; or in Virginia Woolf’s – autobiographical fiction.  That is, it fictionalises Miller’s own story from when he leaves North Queensland and his work on the station and conceives an ambition to become a writer.  While the essence of Miller’s own story is there, certain elements have been changed in response to the dramatic demands of the novel.  The Passage of Love chronicles the first emerging of his desire to write and then his struggle to achieve it; and, as the book’s title suggests, explores the key relationships in his life at that time.

The Passage of Love opens as Miller visits a prison to speak with some of the inmates about his books.  Reflecting later that his desire to write was no longer present, Miller reads a collection of essays by John Berger.  In one, Berger quotes ‘the novel … was born of a yearning for what now lay beyond the horizon’. [26].  This sentence crystallises for Miller the purpose of writing – to record what is now past and ‘beyond the horizon’. Consequently, Miller begins to write the story of how he became a writer.

The novel is bookended by two relatively brief sections where Alex Miller speaks as himself – a writer then in his eightieth year – reflecting on the path which led him to this point in his life.  The major part of the book – the autobiographical fiction – concerns Robert Crofts finding his way into becoming a writer.  Robert Crofts is the name which Miller has given his fictionalised self.  Coincidentally – or maybe not – this is also the name of the protagonist in Miller’s first novel Watching the Climbers on the Mountain.  In that novel, Crofts is the young English stockman who changes the lives of the owner of the station and his young wife forever.

Crofts – working as a stockman in Queensland – reflects on his close friendship with Frankie – an Aboriginal ringer.  After he leaves the station to pursue his ambition to be a writer, his desire to capture the friendship in the written word becomes his purpose.  The writing burst upon him.  He didn’t struggle with it but let it take him and it rolled out ahead of him; he knew it, it was written in his heart.  He didn’t resist. [289]

However, in the process of writing, Crofts has neglected his wife Lena and the consequence of this neglect is the abandonment of his incomplete novel as he and Lena relocate to Canberra.  He begins work as a public servant and this leads to his meeting Ann.  While Ann is soon to move to Boston with her husband, there is a connection between them which finds its ultimate expression only later in the novel.  At this point though, they have to be satisfied with a touch.  At this he felt her fingers move against his, not holding his hand but touching him.  No touch had ever felt so intimate to him, so gratifying, or so exciting. [348]

Again, he and Lena move – this time to farmland where he was at once in love with this wild little patch of country [376].  After struggling for some time to find her purpose in life, Lena enrols in an art course in Melbourne and moves away from the farm.  Crofts continues there and completes his first novel.

The final section of the novel – narrated by Miller – he reflects on his writing The Passage of Love.  He speaks of the ‘strange diffusion of memory and imagination’ from which he drew to write the book.  With an emotional honesty which is a mark of all his novels, he also speaks of those unwelcome memories which refuse to be discarded and for which he is regretful.

As always, there is a beautiful rhythm and cadence in Miller’s writing:

Standing there looking at the scene, the situation of the cottage and the barn seemed to Robert more tightly enclosed by the densely timbered hills than he remembered from their first visit, the buildings and the yards clustered into this narrow pocket of cleared land at the bottom of the valley, the immense stillness of the morning, birds making a racket in the timber. [393]

Miller has written a novel which, while perhaps not reaching the heights of his [say] Autumn Laing or Journey to the Stone Country, can certainly take its place confidently within his oeuvre.  It chronicles both his journey towards being a writer and his romances and friendships – each of whom in his or her own way has contributed to his being a writer.

Alex Miller has written twelve novels all of which have won awards including two Miles Franklin Literary Awards and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.  He is now 81 and lives in country Victoria with Stephanie his wife of 43 years.

The Passage of Love


by Alex Miller

Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 1 76029 734 3

584pp; $32.99



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