On my mental bookshelf, Robert Lukins’s debut novella, 2018’s The Everlasting Sunday, sits alongside volumes like Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, and Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade: novels of lavish melancholy and human grace. Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog is on that shelf, as is John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, and an obligatory copy of John Williams’s Stoner. Quiet classics.
When The Everlasting Sunday arrived – a tale of outcast boys and a formative 1960s winter – it felt like the book had slipped through some fissure in the space-time continuum, less a new release than a rediscovery. Lukins’s new novel, Loveland, tears the fabric of time open for itself: the past reaches forward; the present reaches back. Reckonings collide.
Stripped back to the barest of bare bones, Loveland has the kind of plot that Nicholas Sparks might filch: a thirtysomething woman, May, mired in a cruel marriage, inherits a house from her American grandmother, Casey – a property no one knew existed. May flees the cloying Brisbane heat for corn-fed Nebraska and the lake town of Loveland, once the site of an extravagant hotel and amusement park. A boarded-up boathouse is waiting for her, and the chance – perhaps – to start again. As May brings the house back to life, her grandmother’s story unfurls: a newlywed, far from home, caught up in a lakeside tragedy.
It’s easy to imagine the gentle genre-romance version: benevolent water, sparkling light, a symbolic flock of waterbirds. Some obliging, soft souled, deft-handed handyman. And Casey’s sepia-toned memories of the view from the top of the ferris wheel. Twin tales of waterside sorrow and healing.
But that’s not the novel Robert Lukins has written – his title is not a dainty promise, but a dark irony. In Lukins’s version of Loveland, the lake is contaminated, the boathouse is rotting, and May’s obliging handyman is a lock-picking teenage nihilist. The neighbours are years deep into a class-action lawsuit to salvage the value of their smelt-poisoned land; the town is prepping for a “mass casualty training session” at the local elementary school; and every time May’s phone pings it’s a new threat from her husband.
In this septic pocket of the American midwest – this “vicious middleness” – Lukins gives us echoing tales of coercive control and erosion. Alone at the lake house in the late 1950s, Casey is learning her husband’s “rules”: his cast-iron marital expectations and lurking furies (“The word prisoner was never used, but it was how she came to understand herself”). Meanwhile, her granddaughter is realising that she has spent her marriage – her entire adulthood – in a state of isolated (and isolating) vigilance: anticipating, mollifying, deflecting, defusing, apologising. “There had been no severing incident,” Lukins writes. “It had all just been a creep. A slow, noiseless decay.” Decades apart, the two women seize on the same language of breathlessness: “the never-ending struggle for air”. Their unvoiced terrors burn up the oxygen.
Lukins offers no excuses for the men, because there are no excuses. Nor does he try to nut out “why women stay”, because it’s not an unfathomable mystery – far from it. Loveland is a novel about how women stay: how they stay upright and functional and alive, and the price they pay for that perseverance – the hefty levies of silence and shame. These are inheritable costs, Lukins shows. “This was their lot,” May thinks to herself. “To work and go silent and eventually still … this was the chain and May was simply the next.”
Like Lukins’s first novel, Loveland is a book of internal landscapes set loose. In The Everlasting Sunday, it was a world of frost – all brittle and numbed. A class full of snowed-in teenagers, waiting for their lives to thaw. In Loveland, it’s all fester, blight and ruin. The lake is “infected green and the smell of a wound”; sunset turns the sky livid, like “the back of a poisonous frog”. Ticks lurk in the bushes and burrow into scalps. Calves are gutted; books drowned. It sounds heavy-handed, and much of it is, but it’s also the wild, red imagery of rapture. And rather a novel of figurative violence than one of gratuitous infliction.
As May finds her way around the local landmarks of rural Nebraska, she encounters tales of wronged lovers and grieving wives, of murders and massacres, of enough tears to fill riverbeds and waterfalls. A sun shower, she is told, “is the devil and his wife fighting” – a tormented, weeping sky. How might we imagine different stories for our children, Loveland asks, when women’s suffering is our folkloric bedrock, and inked into our maps? It’s a dignified question from a writer who so palpably cares about dignity; a writer who understands that it is not necessary to hurt women to prove how women are hurt.