Monday 17 November 2014
John Patterner in Alex Miller’s Lovesong, page 64.
‘Australia,’ he said. ‘I’m from Australia.’
‘Whereabouts in Australia? My husband sailed there many times when he was in the merchant navy.’
‘New South Wales originally, but Melbourne these days,’ John Patterner said.
‘Dom visited the Dandenong mountains. Do you know them?’
John Patterner laughed. ‘Of course! The Dandenongs, for sure. They’re just hills, really.They’re not mountains.’
‘So you know them?’
‘Of course, yes. Everyone in Melbourne knows the Dandenongs.’
Lovesong by Alex Miller
Ken, a curmudgeonly writer becomes intrigued by the family who run the new local bakery. John Patterner met his wife Sabhiha while on a sabbatical in Europe. Together they ran in Chez Dom, a run down Tunisian café in the back streets of Paris, well off the tourist path. They are contented in their marriage but are destined to always be strangers to each other, both from different cultures and living in a third, communicating in French rather than their native languages. Sabiha yearns for a child. John feels himself being pulled back to Australia. Is there a remedy to strengthen their relationship?
First Impressions: I was instantly drawn into Alex Miller’s writing, more specifically Ken’s voice. Interestingly, I did not find Ken an engaging character at this point.
Highlights: There is much to love about this novel. The narrative frame is interesting as Sabiha’s story is told by her husband to Ken who then relates it to us. I did wonder if Ken’s inclusion was necessary as he was a rather innocuous character. However, much to my surprise, towards the end of the novel Ken’s true character emerges and I found him highly entertaining. MIller really made Vaugiraud in Paris come alive. I could just imagine walking the back streets and I had a strong sense of what Chez Dom would have been like. As an expat I could also relate to John Patterner’s moments of yearning for Australia that were not necessarily based on logical reasoning, and the small details he remembers from his childhood.
If I was an editor: It is just nitpicking but Sabiha’s longing for a baby perhaps did go on for a bit too long. I would have also liked more of the narrator’s story – I really liked Ken by the end!
Overall: So glad I read this. Such a lovely story.
Lovesong: 5 stars
The Expats by Chris Pavone
Almost French by Sarah Turnbull
Kate Moore and her family move to the tax haven of Luxembourg after her husband is offered a high paying job in finance. She swaps an exciting career for the life of a housewife; endless coffee mornings, shopping expeditions and school gate gossip begin to dominate her life. However, all is not what it seems. The reader is given glimpses into Kate’s hidden past. Her husband becomes secretive and she begins to doubt the sincerity of the American couple she has befriended. As Kate begins to watch others closely, who is monitoring her moves?
In The Expats Chris Pavone has written a page turning espionage thriller. I enjoyed the fast pace and intrigue but what I appreciated most about this book were the fine details Pavone included about expatriate life. Since reading The Expats I have discovered that Pavone lived in Luxembourg for 18 months and this comes as no surprise. He includes a number of authentic references to life in Luxembourg that would only be recalled by someone who did more than just travel through as a tourist. Anyone who has lived abroad will have tales of unusual food staples, odd taxes and charges, shops not stocking what you would expect, quirks of transport systems… the list goes on.
For instance, small ham rolls. These are offered to Kate in a number of cafes and restaurants, as well as at her gym as a complimentary treat. Kate also becomes frustrated by gyms not opening until after 9am; this is the sort of cultural nuance that locals would not question but would surprise someone from a different country. The ability to drive a few hours and be in a different country for a short break, and supermarkets stocking unrecognisable products are two more of the pros and cons of living as an expat in Europe. Pavone’s insightful comments on the bored teenage children of expat workers and the contrived nature of the community and cultural heritage in the international business hub that is Luxembourg City reflect his deeper understanding of the expat experience.
Some middling reviews of this novel discuss how the mundane daily experiences of Kate make the novel dull and tedious. I disagree. I think the novel successfully conveys the claustrophobic and repetitive life Kate now lives and it adds to the atmosphere of the story. The plot twists and Kate’s investigations into those around her are generally realistic enough but I did have to suspend some disbelief. However, I think I find this with all thrillers I read as it is rarely my genre of choice. These more critical comments are balanced out by the realistic backdrop of Luxembourg which is why I have awarded this novel a solid four star rating.
Published about eight years ago is Almost French, a memoir by Sarah Turnbull. She leaves behind her journalism career in Australia and moves to Paris to be with her French boyfriend. I read it when it was first published and enjoyed it as an easy read. At that point in my life I hadn’t yet travelled to France so I delighted in her navigation of French culture from an antipodean point of view. Not surprisingly, the book was very popular in Australia. I particularly liked the scene where her boyfriend tied a jumper around his waist rather than draping it across his shoulders in order to pass as an Australian when they were strolling in the countryside.
I remember feeling sympathy with Sarah as she felt quite lonely and isolated in her French apartment, despite how chic it sounded. She found it hard to make friends despite trying to connect with other expats. One of my expat colleagues at the time had a different response to the story. She thought it was unrealistic for an adult to move countries and expect to make a large circle of friends quickly, particularly if they don’t work. Perspective is everything and I think she made a valid point. I just wonder what she thinks about Kate’s experiences in The Expats…
The Expats: 4 Stars
Almost French: 4 Stars