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One of the most famous meditations in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872) is on the symbol of the pier-glass:
Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun.
Eliot’s parable describes the way our sense of our own importance and value is only relative – a matter of perception. In other words, we are all the protagonists of our own lives, but it would be both naïve and arrogant to presume we are central to anyone else’s life story.
Alex Miller’s latest novel explores this concept through a narrative of middle-aged growth: a transition from self-absorption and isolation, to generosity and friendship.
A Brief Affair is the story of Dr Frances Egan, head of the School of Management at the regional campus of an Australian university. She leads a charmed life:
she’s already got everything. A lovely home and a family and a successful career.
It’s disrupted by one night of passion with an international colleague, while on a work trip to China.
Unhappy, unfaithful women
In one sense, the novel operates in the tradition of narratives of unhappy, unfaithful women: Madame Bovary (1856), The Awakening (1899), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), The Bride Stripped Bare (2003). Like the women in those novels, Frances thinks this moment of romantic freedom gives her agency and autonomy; that it offers her, as a harried wife, mother and employee, “something of her own”.
The novel largely employs free indirect discourse to convey Frances’s story. This technique describes the use of third-person narration that adopts the nuances of a character’s own speech and perspective, so that “objective” narration is replaced by the character’s subjective views and attitudes, often presented as if they were universally true.
In A Brief Affair, this creates a claustrophobic interiority – we rarely get to see the perspectives of others, mirroring Frances’s own refusal or inability to see or think outside her own experience. The reader will recognise this self-absorption as the main source of her personal and professional conflicts (struggles as a wife and parent, bullying and manipulation by senior management, resentment from her direct reports), even as Frances herself doesn’t see it.
Frances is oblivious to the way she has already made everything “her own”, and uncritically expects to be the priority for those around her. For instance, as she leaves for work early in the novel, she steps on a loose stone on the driveway, and slightly stumbles. The event is so minor, it’s hardly worth noting. But when Frances’s husband, Tom, telephones her at lunch, she assumes he is still worried about her slight misstep. His professions of love and admiration for her – “You’re perfect”, “You’re an amazing woman” – are never returned.
Similarly, she views her children as a mere extension of herself and her marriage, assuming the stories her young son writes (but keeps private) must be about his family – and so, her. She is surprised when none of the other passengers on a bus in China look at her. When she discovers the old journal of a former patient at the asylum, which now forms the university campus, she doesn’t see it as belonging to them, but instead feels it is “meant for her”.
She presumes a lull in the conversation means her colleagues are speaking about her in the tearoom, and takes a legitimate professional critique so deeply to heart that her internal response to that colleague is, “I think I hate her”. Working at a campus in the northern suburbs is “the price we must be willing to pay for our vision”, she tells her staff. But nowhere does she display what her stated commitment to education might look like.
Her exploitation of her husband’s care, her children’s devotion and her colleagues’ respect underpins Frances’s own sense of success – or failure.
“Everyone always thinks their own story is the most interesting one we’re ever going to hear,” observes one character. This is precisely what Frances must come to realise. She is not everyone’s story – instead, everyone has their own story.
An authentic life
Frances’s reflections on the “brief affair” of the title demonstrate her personal evolution. For much of the novel, she thinks of her co-conspirator as her “Mongolian warrior”, reducing both him and China, where the one-night affair took place, to a romanticised, highly simplified Orientalist Other – existing only to give meaning to her own experience.
The publisher’s tagline describes A Brief Affair as a novel about “love’s power to change us”. But it’s not her romantic affair that changes Frances: indeed, there is no direct consequence for her infidelity. Rather, France’s gesture towards growth lies in her slow realisation that the most powerful instances of love in her life come from friendship, the commitment of her marriage, and an evolving relationship with her growing children.
Love, in other words, can be found by moving outside the individualist attitude Frances displays in all aspects of her life.
A Brief Affair is a quiet novel, focused on just one life. But in its emphasis on the ways we might each construct our own story – while respecting the stories of others around us – it has a profound impact.