First, just to be clear: I am not a student of Australian art or art history, and I was not looking for the real Sidney Nolan between the covers of this book. Alex Miller makes it abundantly clear that this is a work of fiction, and as far as I'm concerned this gives him sufficient license to make whatever he likes of Pat Donlon (the Nolan character).
This is not a narrative-driven work. The central thrust of the plot comes down to this: Autumn Laing, a wealthy patroness of the arts, and Pat Donlon, a renegade young artist, engage in an intense affair. This affair is destructive, but maybe also creative -- Autumn Laing sees herself as Pat Donlon's muse. Donlon goes on to bigger things and abandons Laing to her damaged marriage. Laing gets old, uneventfully except for the turmoil inside her, which she attempts to calm by writing about those formative events in her life. Readers looking for lots of plot will be disappointed. This is a book of reflections on some of the bigger themes of what it means to be human.
Autumn Laing is not "about" just one thing. Of course, it raises many questions about art: What is art? How is it created? How ought the credit for a work of art be apportioned? Is there any value in studying and talking about art? What is destroyed when art is created? Does the creation justify the destruction? It is a testament to the quality of Alex Miller's writing that not only does he meditate on all these issues without ever being superficial or stuffy or insular, he also manages to meaningfully explore a number of other "big" themes. Youth and old age, love and lust, betrayal, regret, and the fine line between truth and fiction all get quite a look-in in Autumn Laing. Miller's clever riffing on this last theme -- the book is clearly a fiction, but is the fiction the result of the work of the author Alex Miller? or is it the inevitable fiction of a life looking back on itself? -- delighted me, and at the same time in my opinion quite clearly makes irrelevant any question of whether this is an accurate reflection on the lives of Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan. I was astounded by the density of wisdom in this book.
This is really good literature, funny and playful and full of human feeling and understanding. I'd recommend it to anybody who enjoys teasing apart and reflecting on what they read -- a great book club novel.