Reviewed by Rod McLary
Alex Miller is one of Australia’s finest writers – and is the winner of Miles Franklin Literary Awards for The Ancestor Game [in 1992] and Journey to the Stone Country [in 2003] and has won several other awards. A Brief Affair is his fifteenth novel and, as he does in his previous novels, canvasses themes of love, history, and knowledge.
Essentially the story is a simple one but, at the same time, one with complex layers and meanings. Dr Frances Egan has been appointed as head of the new management school at a university campus in Sunbury in the far suburbs of Melbourne. She has achieved her professional ambition – Frances is also married to Tom a timber craftsman and has two children Margie and Little Tommy. However, on a conference trip to China, she makes the brave decision to break away from the group and explore the city alone. There she meets by chance a Chinese man – ‘a man of substance’ . He smiles at her and she feels ‘the pulse of erotic pleasure’  and they have a one-night affair.
Back in Australia, she no longer feels the same level of enthusiasm for her job. But, more significantly, her family can sense that, since China, something has changed between her and Tom. On a visceral level, Tom realises that Frances may have had an affair but he is unwilling to articulate his realisation because of a fear of the consequences. Frances on her part believes that the affair is her ‘own private secret thing that has nothing to do with [her] family or with [her] job’ . But it is a ‘secret thing’ which resonates through the novel and influences Fran’s subsequent decisions about herself and her family.
As so often with Alex Miller’s novels, the past is not forgotten but throbs and reverberates beneath the present. The new campus building was once a ‘lunatic asylum’ and Fran feels ‘a residue of something from the past which refused to leave the fabric of the place … the ghosts of the once-upon-a-time lunatics refusing to be forgotten’ . Fran’s office was once Cell 16 and housed Valerie Sommers from 1957 to 1962 and, while Valerie was a resident there, she wrote a diary – one volume of which is now given to Fran. In reading the diary, Fran can feel the presence of Valerie and her deepest knowledge of suffering and bliss.
A Brief Affair is a novel which explores the interior life of both Fran in the here and now and of Valerie some 65 years previously. At the core of the women’s interior lives is love – simple and complex at the same time. As the author has said: ‘without love we never really know ourselves’ and Fran’s acknowledgment of love brings her to a fuller understanding of the importance of her family and the affair remains a thing apart – ‘her private thing’. There is also the love between Valerie and Jessie which ultimately leads to Jessie’s suicide – a love which they ‘were proud to show … before the gaze of the world’ . The impact of Jessie’s death is heartbreakingly described in an extract from Valerie’s diary as read by Fran.
The novel is written with sensitivity and wisdom and expressed in beautiful language with a cadence and rhythm almost poetic in nature. It is placed firmly in the Victorian landscape – an ancient landscape ‘beyond human understanding’ one which does not belong to its inhabitants but only to itself. This sense of landscape – not peculiar to this novel but common across many of Alex Miller’s books – reverberates through the novel.
A Brief Affair is a book to be read slowly and carefully to fully appreciate the writing and its meanings. It can readily take its place alongside his other novels.
A Brief Affair
by Alex Miller
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 978 176610 757 3