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Contemplating the Maternal Duty: Conditions of Faith

Alex Miller’s Conditions of Faith is a constantly evocative, poignant, and, at times erotically-charged story which chronicles a woman’s journey from young adulthood through the inevitable questioning, rashness, ignorance and self-delusion to the destination of maturity.

When we first meet Emily Stanton she has just completed university. Full of promise, her father encourages her to continue her studies, but Emily is unenthused and unsure. She makes vast life-changing decisions in the hope that she will somehow stumble upon her happiness and her “raison d’etre”, but of course this only casts her further and further adrift.

Set in the backdrop of the 1920s, the scale is grand and takes the reader from one corner of the globe to the other, starting in Melbourne then on to Paris, Chartres and Tunisia. Each location is full and fragrant and seething, which enables us to grasp a real sense of Emily’s world. Miller obviously spent a lot of time meticulously researching the cities in that period and it shows in his almost OCD level of detail.

Much of the novel focuses on Emily questioning the role of mother, the expectations of society and her attempts to find meaning and passion in intellectual pursuit. There is a price to pay of course, but how much it will cost is something that Emily must face. The choices she makes may seem frustrating but they do ring true in their context.

“In the presence of our child’s needs we are women divided against ourselves. Is this, indeed, a secret all mothers share but dare not disclose to their children?”

The book was somewhat inspired by Miller’s own mother’s diary (which includes a stint in Paris in the 1920s), which he read after her death. It’s interesting to speculate how much this background impacted the character Emily’s inner-self. Ambivalence and martyrdom are strong themes throughout so one must wonder if Miller’s mother shared Emily’s uncertainty; and, if so, what the emotional impact was on him when reading those words.

Miller is a very capable and skilled writer; he has won the Miles Franklin award twice (that’s just greedy, really) and Conditions of Faith was shortlisted for both The Miles Franklin and The Age Book of the Year. This is not a book short on accolades.

Alex Miller. Photo by Kate Miller.

I know all you men – those of you who made it this far - are wondering if this is a chick’s book. It’s absolutely NOT chick-lit, but it is certainly a study on the mind and motivations of a woman. It serves to illuminate and understand her, and as such is an interesting character study, bound up in some wonderfully drawn locations. Make of that what you will.

Sometimes the writing feels a little stodgy or flat but the character of Emily is intriguing, sympathetic and infinitely relatable, particularly to the modern reader. Conditions of Faith will undoubtedly keep your mind ticking well after the last page has been read.

words: Kristen Hodges


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