Malcolm Tattersall

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Prochownik's Dream is not Journey to the Stone Country. Alex Miller does not repeat himself, so here we have no Townsville family home, no run-down cattle station and no termite-haunted Central Queensland homestead. Instead, Prochownik's Dream is set almost entirely in just two inner-suburban Melbourne houses.

One is the home and studio of the artist Toni Powlett and his wife Teresa and four-year-old daughter Nada. The other is the home of Toni's mentor Robert Schwartz, his wife Marina and father Theo.

As the novel opens, Toni has just realised that he has reached a dead end in his art, while Robert and Marina have just returned to their Richmond house after four years in Sydney. Marina becomes the key to Toni's rebirth as a painter, but brings his marriage to the brink of disaster in the process. Teresa's support for Toni is already strained by her lack of understanding of his work and his artistic friends. When Marina becomes Toni's model, Teresa is caught between gratitude that he has begun to paint again and well-founded jealousy of a relationship that threatens her marriage.

Prochownik's Dream explores the tensions between the artistic impulse and daily life and is one of the finest evocations of the creative process I have read. Because it is so concerned with the process of creation it has to look inward more than outward. Occasionally the interior monologues threaten to bog down the narrative, but Miller maintains tension and momentum by braiding together his themes so that each continually revitalises the others.

Cultural identity and father-son relationships are strong subsidiary themes. Toni Powlett is Antoni Prochownik (Pro-shov-nik), child of a couple who escaped Poland during the second world war and emigrated to safety, incomprehension and grinding manual work in Melbourne. His close bond with his father, who died around the time Nada was born, is central to his understanding of himself as an artist. Toni's experiences are counterpointed against those of Teresa, child of a close-knit Calabrian immigrant family, and Robert, whose father abandoned his young children to live in Europe for forty years.

Half a dozen fine novels in the last fifteen years have placed Alex Miller securely in the top rank of Australian writers. Prochownik's Dream will not have the automatic appeal to North Queensland readers of Journey to the Stone Country but in some ways it is an even better book. By avoiding the potential distractions of an exotic background, Miller tightens his focus on his subject, the interplay between personal history and the creative impulse.

Allen & Unwin, $29.95

Review added July 2006
(originally published Jan)
Page updated May 2008

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