Book review: Loveland by Robert Lukins

(courtesy Allen & Unwin)

The ugliness of life is rarely beautiful but in the hands of masterful Australian writer Robert Lukins, it is realised in ways that are lyrically poetic, mesmerisingly powerful and profoundly moving.

Loveland is a novel that carries a title that suggests the most beautiful things in life all embodied in one evocatively romantic word, and while the intent of protagonist May is for the good and wonderful things in life – for a close relationship with her angry son, for freedom and a sense of self unencumbered by the brutal control of others – she is rarely party to life’s more lovely moments and impulses.

Hers has been a life not only scarred by her own trajectory but that of her mysterious, emotionally distant grandmother Casey who, many years earlier, escaped Loveland, Nebraska for Brisbane, Australia, her infant daughter Rosie close in hand, for a life she hoped might have some of the beauty she had always longed for.

Casey, it is revealed throughout this wondrously affecting novel, rich in humanity newly optimistic and brokenly dark, often in the same person in the same place at the same time, had once dreamed of a world defined by true love and all the good and perfect things she dreamed life could bring but had realised that perhaps it was not as idealitically bountiful as she’d expected.

In fact, through much of Loveland, which seamlessly alternates between the present day when May is in Loveland following Casey’s death, and the mid-1950s where Casey is sobering up to the grim cruel realities of a life she didn’t expect to have and may not be able to escape, there is a grim tension between life’s stark brutality and the hope, however fragile and beaten down, that something good and worthwhile may yet emerge from a life redeemed.

So this wouldn’t be a time of them coming together in some neat little coupling. She’d never really believed that it would be, but she’s let herself hope all the same. Maybe it was her job now to make something of this. This house. This mad house of Nebraska. The son and the father were a pair and so maybe she had to make a pairing of her own with this house. (P. 35)

May arrives in Loveland to settle her grandmother’s estate, which consists of a boarded-up house on a poisoned lake surrounded by the ashes, some literal, some metaphorical, of the life that had been Casey’s.

Her old home, the one she fled after a night that is so evocatively realised in the first chapter that you are seared from the start of this astoundingly intensely beautiful novel, was once the preserve of the Love family whose entire livelihood, and, rather damagingly for themselves and all who fell in their orbit, sense of self was bound up in a resort on an oxbow lake where a stately house and an amusement park provided entertainment for the wealthy in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

This holiday resort defined the family and the town, which was named after its founding fathers, and its decline, part of a wrenching post-World War II redefining of society, came to scar the lives of Casey, by association, and somehow May too who arrives to a town which is still suffering the aftereffects of a family’s dream unravelling and dying in horribly spectacular fashion.

May, who has known considerable hardship and pain arrives in Loveland unsure of what to expect but knows that she cannot continue in the way she has, and that maybe, this unknown culture and people, part of her heritage, can help her find the escape and renewed sense of self she needs.

For all of the nascent hope and creeping sense of renewal that accompanies May to Nebraska, the story at the heart of Loveland, its title and narrative substance always in conflict and compelling tension, is an ugly one.

The ugliness of broken dreams, of life derailed, of hope squashed and freedom brutally and comprehensively taken from two women who dreamed big but were not rewarded with the sort of expansively fulfilling and emotionally enriched dreams that such epic hopefulness should have engendered.

Lukins writes with moving empathy and understanding of how it would feel when darkness has consumed a person, or a whole family in fact, and how being loosed from such an emotional prison, one not of your making but rather of another’s poisoned soul, is easier said, or thought, than done but that simply the act of deciding to escape can have powerful repercussions.

Time and again we are confronted by the sheer ugliness of people whose sole way to exist is to enslave and control others but then we see how Casey and May, though beaten down, rise, by degrees and with a great weight of trauma upon them, to try to remake lives long taken from them.

She walked back down the path and saw that the lawn was truly exceptional. Not a weed, not a bug in sight. Not one ounce of love. As she got to the street she heard a voice shouting after her. There was no way to tell if it was the boy’s or the man’s. Just the same, familiar barking. (P. 294)

It is the fragile tension of hope existing, even in pulverised but nascent form, in the darkest places of the human soul that give Loveland such a beautifully affecting feel.

It is all too easy to recoil when the ugly truth of Casey and May’s lives are laid bare – though she knew next-to-nothing about her grandmother’s life back in Nebraska, May quickly feels bound to her in ways that speak to their sad commonality of life experience – and you are right to do so, because the events described are nothing but horrific.

Lukins does not spare us this horror but he is also such a gifted writer that we are never left with cliches, tropes or cardboard cutout renderings of people or events, with Loveland full of graded and nuanced depictions of lives dreamed of, achieved and lost, hoping to be found again.

It’s a rare art to depict such ugliness while simultaneously evoking the beauty there too, and even though you know that the realisation will not be easy and will involve more pain before anything good comes of it, if there is any good resulting at all, Lukins achieves it in masterful storytelling that reaches deep in your soul and leaves you gasping at both the darkness and flickering light of life.

It is true that Loveland is a novel stained with the very worst of humanity, all of which is told in ways unstinting and desperately broken and bare, but it is also redolent with two remarkable women who, knowing all too well how big and locked tight their prison is, nevertheless seize the chance they’re both given to make a change, their gripping stories told is in language and empathy so rich, deep and compellingly lyrical that you will marvel at Lukins’ ability to speak of the ugliness of life in ways that are so beautiful that you begin to appreciate how it is that May and her grandmother can hold onto the beautiful things even when the world around seems irretrievably and forever dark.

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