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Universal truth of human passion brings art to life

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LIFE never goes the way we want it, but in the end its unpredictability makes for a richer story.

In late 1930s Melbourne, the fiery Autumn Laing's stable married life and circle of art friends are upended when her good-natured husband brings home a stray young artist.

In a brief encounter that leaves her guilt-ridden for the rest of her life, she becomes the muse behind one of Australia's most celebrated modernists.

Having set out to write about real-life Australian artist Sidney Nolan, novelist Alex Miller explains in an afterword how he was overwhelmed by his title character's voice.

Instead, Autumn Laing is inspired by the love affair between Nolan and Sunday Reed, wife of the late Australian arts patron John Reed.

This is the English-born Miller's 10th novel, following 2009's Lovesong.

Writing in a Henry Jamesian vein, Miller, who migrated to Australia at age 16, tends to focus on artists and Australians searching for their own identity against the stern dictates of their European parentage.

Beginning in 1991, an elderly and unlikable Autumn scribbles down the story of her life at her dilapidated family home. A chance encounter with her dead lover's former wife has motivated her to confess everything and seek redemption.

With unpleasant humour and irritability, she describes her aches and pains, terrible gas from eating only cabbage, and her love-hate relationship with Adeli Heartstone, the American researcher who has come to learn about Pat Donlan, the impoverished young artist whose career Autumn launched and whose marriage she destroyed nearly 60 years earlier.

Jumping back and forth from present to past, Autumn cobbles together her story -- which can be a confusing technique at times. Autumn's two closest friends are mentioned but not explained until halfway through, when all the key characters are assembled (in 1930s at Autumn and her husband Arthur's house) for a key moment where Pat is challenged to explain his art.

Autumn's friends pooh-pooh Pat's sweeping brush strokes and dismissal of European influence, like the brash American bull in James's European china shop. "Your ideas, if I may say so, amount to very little. It takes enormous skill and heroic persistence to make something new in art. Either we follow Europe in this, or we Australians will fall by the wayside and remain a pointless backwater forever," says Louis de Vries.

Pat discovers "what makes Australian art" after a trip with Autumn to her friend's family homestead in the outback. There Pat paints feverishly and launches his career.

Though a deeply layered narrative with intense and alive characters, the time-jumping plot line can be confusing and the sudden introduction of people -- well known to Autumn but new to the reader -- can be frustrating.

Miller tells the end of the story first, so the tale of how Pat became a famous artist happens well after we already know he is famous and that their relationship ended before it starts.

The story unfolds in a non-linear way, which may annoy some readers and engage others wishing to see how the puzzle pieces will ultimately fit together.

The universal truth of human passion brings art to life in Miller's fictional biography of a woman unredeemed. Autumn Laing is a rewarding life experience for the patient and committed reader.

 

Christine Mazur is a Winnipeg writer with an MA in English literature from the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 J8

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