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In Loveland, Robert Lukins explores a woman’s experience of abuse, but at times loses his way

The sophomore effort of a writer whose debut novel was widely acclaimed is always going to be an object of fascination. Was it a one-off? Did the writer have only one story worth sharing? Or can the writer do it again – catch literary lightning in a bottle a second time?

Robert Lukins’s debut novel, The Everlasting Sunday (2018), did not win any awards, but it was shortlisted or longlisted for a few. It also appeared on many “best of” lists, including The Australian’s “Top 10 Australian Books of 2018” and Australian Book Review’s “2018 Books of the Year”.

Review: Loveland - Robert Lukins (Allen & Unwin)

One of its most remarkable aspects was that it felt like a book out of time, in both style and content. Stylistically, it had a quiet grace more commonly associated with classics than contemporary releases. Also, it was short enough that some reviewers referred to it as a “novella” – a literary form typically eschewed by modern, profit-hungry publishers.

In terms of content, it felt strange to read a book by a contemporary Australian author set in a boys’ boarding school in 1960s England. It is the sort of setting one might expect from an earlier generation of Australian authors, who were less comfortable with the specificities of life in the Australian suburbs.

Four years later (almost to the day), Robert Lukins has followed up The Everlasting Sunday with his second novel, Loveland. It tells the story of May, a woman living in Brisbane with her abusive husband and teenage son. May’s grandmother had immigrated to Australia from the United States in the early years of her adulthood.

When May’s grandmother passes away, May learns that she has inherited a house she never knew existed, in a place she could have never imagined – on the banks of a poisoned lake in Loveland, Nebraska.

May flies to the United States to claim the house and escape a relationship defined by physical violence and coercive control. Chapters about May’s contemporary experiences alternate with chapters set in the 1950s, in which readers learn about her grandmother’s married life in Loveland.

The parallels between these two lives suggest that the novel is, at its core, an exploration of inter-generational violence and trauma. Readers are inspired to ask: “What awful thing happened to May’s grandmother that made her flee Loveland, never to speak of it again? And can May find refuge in this place?”

A commercial novel

Loveland is a decidedly more commercial novel than The Everlasting Sunday. While The Everlasting Sunday could be summarised in a single sentence, any summary of the plot of Loveland necessarily contains more drama and even suspense. There is just more happening in Loveland.

Lukins would appear to be migrating from the exclusive realm of literary fiction to the more generous fields of popular or commercial fiction (or perhaps even upmarket fiction), where he might be compared to another Australian author, Liane Moriarty.

Nonetheless, Loveland retains many of the characteristics that distinguished its predecessor. Both books explore settings that are far removed from their author’s home in Australia, and in both books these settings are gorgeously realised and vivid. For example, Lukins writes,

The boathouse was directly in front, maybe two hundred metres away and to both sides the water bent in long curves. This desperate-looking crimson. It seemed to simmer.

These images stick in the mind. It is perhaps worth noting that this reviewer was born and raised in the US – in a flyover state, not too dissimilar to Nebraska – and he found the descriptions of American people and places to be thoroughly convincing. This feat is made all the more impressive because Lukins has never visited Nebraska – a fact he has admitted in interviews and in a newspaper article.

Navigating tricky terrain

Another standout feature of Lukins’s writing is his ability to craft memorable, three-dimensional characters. While this reviewer is a cisgender male and, therefore, perhaps not the best person to render judgement on this issue, Loveland’s 30-something female protagonist is every bit as compelling as the teenage male protagonist in The Everlasting Sunday.

Lukins is no doubt aware that he is navigating tricky terrain writing about women’s experiences of abuse, but his commitment to his characters never wavers. Certainly, the men who orbit these main characters are (appropriately) never cut any slack:

Casey thought about what it might mean if she knew of the awful times of the husband’s youth… . He was in pain, he must surely be, but that could not be a full counterweight to his acts. There is circumstance but there is also fault and blame.

Of course, setting and characterisation are the hallmarks of great works of literary fiction, and these are where Lukins excels. On the other hand, the hallmark of great works of popular or commercial fiction is, quite simply, plot.

Robert Lukins. Goodreads

That is a simplification, but there is more than enough truth in it. Unfortunately, the drama and suspense promised by Loveland’s prologue never quite materialises. Moreover, the pace begins to drag in the novel’s middle. When May pulls out a copy of An Incomplete Roadways Guide to Nebraska and proceeds to quote liberally from it as she tours through the landscape surrounding the fictional town of Loveland, it is a clear sign the novel (unlike May) has lost its bearings and is no longer moving forward.

The plot comes back into focus near the novel’s conclusion, but it is rushed, and the big reveal is perhaps not quite as surprising as Lukins was hoping for. The same could be said for the conclusion of The Everlasting Sunday, but that mattered less because the reader was not primed for plot-driven suspense.

Ultimately, the sophomore effort by Lukins does not live up to the hype surrounding his debut. Nonetheless, it is exciting to see a young novelist try something new. The direction is positive; the execution just needs a bit of work (or perhaps a more hands-on structural editor). Lukins remains an author to watch, and his third novel should be as eagerly anticipated as his second.

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