Loveland is the first book I’ve read by Robert Lukins so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Something terribly literary or esoteric I suspect as I know he writes for a number of literary magazines and journals here in Australia.
As it happened I did not flounder about in a state of bewildered confusion. I absolutely adore/d Lukins’s writing. His ability to craft phrases and sentences in a way that they offer so much more than what’s on the page is extraordinary. And far from an unfathomable metaphor I was unable to unravel, Loveland is a very enjoyable novel. About real people and only on a couple of occasions and at the very end did it dip into something possibly beyond my very literal comprehension.
by Robert Lukins
Published by Allen and Unwin
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
May has come from Australia to Loveland, Nebraska, to claim the house on the poisoned lake as part of her grandmother's will. Escaping the control of her husband, will she find refuge or danger?
As she starts repairing the old house, May is drawn to discover more about her silent, emotionally distant grandmother and unravel the secrets that Casey had moved halfway around the world to keep hidden.
The book unfolds in two timeframes. I often comment here on the fact I don’t read historical fiction. If the first thing the blurb mentions is the 1920s or 1940s or – god forbid – the 1800s then it will go unexamined further (unless you’re Jane Austen and then you have a Get Out Of Jail Free card). But, dual timelines I’m capable of coping with – a la Kate Morton and Natasha Lester. (And others of course.)
Lukins offers us the dual timeline. In the present we meet May, unhappy in her marriage with an abusive husband, lumbered with a disinterested teenage son (who’s seemingly shaped in his father’s mould) and struggling to make ends meet. And in the 1950s we meet her grandmother Casey, also in a marriage with a controlling husband carrying emotional wounds from a non-metaphorical battlefield.
The accessibility of this storyline surprised me. But it’s not saga-ish. Lukins’s writing ensures the plot unfolds eloquently and its sparse context means it’s easy to focus on the point of the story rather than extraneous detail we’re sometimes offered. Lukins does share quite a lot of Nebraskan history but it’s very tangible in a tourist guide manner rather than wafts of descriptors we need to cut through to get to the action. To the story itself.
Lukins’s prose are poetic but simple. There’s no arrogance rendering them inaccessible. Some of his phrasing is exquisite… ‘shopping bags yawning their contents onto the concrete’.
He uses odd articles or pronouns when May or Casey are talking about their husbands and families. Rather than ‘my husband’ or ‘her son’, he’s ‘the husband’ and ‘that child’. It offers a sense of separation or indifference. Indeed, May in particular reflects on her relationship with her mother and whether it’s love she feels for her. The focus on family also makes this wistful, because as Casey’s secrets are revealed, it’s obvious how little of herself she shared with her daughter and granddaughter. And of course there’s a very obvious theme of history repeating itself as we pass through the generations. And perhaps the question… if it’s too late to stop that cycle?
The ending was a smidge obscure for me but perhaps I’m reading too much into that. (Or too little?!) There are scenes in which May goes out in a boat and experiences what she calls the Big Nothing. They may be spiritual or metaphysical but I saw them as simply dreamy ponderings rather than ‘visions’.
This book was a huge surprise – not being what I expected and in contemplating it and articulating my thoughts here it gave me a really good understanding of what I enjoy in a book. I often talk about the trifecta of elements: plot, prose and people. (Well, characters but I like a bit of alliteration!) Lukins offers us all three. But more than that, the stripped back and cleanly edited narrative and prose mean there’s no time to get bored or remove ourselves from the story.
May thought of the lake and what she had seen. What she called Big Nothing because it didn’t matter what name we gave something. Words were ridiculous. It was her mind’s final collapse. It was a vision of all creation’s truth….
Words came so easily. They weren’t made of stone or anything needing tools to pull from the ground. They were made of air and only the names we give to things. If they came so easily then maybe the rest could too. pp 125-126
Loveland by Robert Lukins was published by Allen & Unwin on 1 March 2022.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.