Alex Miller. The Sitters. Viking, 1995. ISBN 0670862312.
No one who has a choice chooses to live in Canberra. I’m no exception. I didn’t choose to live in Canberra but I had long ago decided that I’d probably never move away. My wife had been with the Department of Foreign Affairs. That’s why we moved to Canberra in the first place. I was the one who’d stayed. Our son grew up there.
This observation comes early in The Sitters. It comes a little out of the blue. Our nameless narrator, an artist overcoming the painterly version of writer’s block, is introducing us to the “neglected orchard outside my windows where the birds came in the autumn to eat the fruit.” It sounds a peaceful, contemplative space. But somehow he is a prisoner. He continues to live in Canberra and so must, for some reason, have no choice.
I don’t quite know what to make of this statement, and I don’t know where to go with it. Canberra is a city of immigrants. Attested by the ridiculous upsurge in the rental market, as new Defence and DFAT and AusAID postings, students of five universities, and graduate recruits to the public service of two governments, all arrive in town in the same week. The exodus in summer when everyone goes ‘home’ for Christmas. But how can this be? There must have been generations born, educated, employed, retired here by now. Surely not everyone thinks of Canberra as somewhere to escape from? When I was first a student here I used to see that rock marking the NSW-ACT border on the Federal Highway from Sydney and my heart would sink. Now it is my sign that I am almost home, and I’m anticipating that first glimpse of Black Mountain Tower and the Brindabellas.
I also don’t quite know what I want to say about The Sitters, except that it is beautiful. The artist, the knowing observer, understands the implications of every moment, because he knows how it will end, but there is very little ‘action’ in the story. There is the artist’s observation, his contemplation of, his thoughts about, actions. At a recent event I was lucky enough to attend where Miller read from The Sitters, he referred to it as ‘a reverie’. These things give the narrative a dreamlike, floating feeling. I didn’t mind where the story was going. I was content just to float along.
We’re in my studio and I’m showing Jessica the little oil of her mother. It’s late. We’re both tired and happy. We’re in that tired, happy satisfied state you sometimes get when you’ve done a good day’s work….We’ve been dealing with things and we’ve got this sense between us of companionship and respect. And it’s more than that too, but what can you say? Like I said, it’s only glimpses.
Our artist does portraits. Or likenesses. We understand early that there is a difference. The book itself is a sketch: there is much we don’t know. The artist’s name. His role at the University. Where his wife is now. The details aren’t important – we only need a broad outline to understand the picture.
The sketches are enough for me to conclude that perhaps The Sitters is about relationships, mostly fractured ones, and the places that stand for those relationships. The artist stretches a remembered family weekend in Kent to last a whole childhood, to cover over the nicks and cracks of a violent growing up. Jessica travels halfway around the world to escape the destiny that will overtake her if she stays in the Araluen Valley, to repeat the lives of her mother, her grandmother, her great grandmother. Many of the characters are mere shapes. Jessica’s mother, chipping away at the garden with her hoe. Her father, a blur in the background of a photo. Markers in the landscape, denoting disappointment, or persistence perhaps.
I think I had lived here for years before I met anyone who was born in Canberra. It used to be fairly standard to ask new acquaintances where they come from. But surely if we choose to come we can also choose to leave, and yet we stay. The ties of family, of fulfilling work, of shared experiences and lived lives and memories held by places are enough for some. And, like Jessica, who feels compelled to return to Araluen, sometimes we may change our minds and come back.
Winner 2012: Melbourne Prize for Literature