Telling stories

Why is novelist Sue Miller being spun as the American Joanna Trollope?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

‘I’ve never read Joanna Trollope.’ I’m not that surprised. Back home in the USA, novelist Sue Miller clearly enjoys a reputation in her own right. Across the pond in little England, she apparently needs some introduction.

‘Like Joanna Trollope, Miller is a fine artist of the domestic’, says the Sunday Telegraph. ‘If Trollope were an American, she might have produced this novel’, claims the Times Literary Supplement. Would she really? On reading The World Below, Miller’s new novel, the only similarity I could glean between Miller and Trollope is that they are both elegant women of a certain age whose life histories contain a few parallels, they are both published in the UK by Bloomsbury, and they both write about family stuff. ‘I think people are trying to make me as popular over here as she is’, Miller shrugs amiably. And besides, ‘Joanna Trollope is not so well known in the USA’.

It is tempting that the Miller/Trollope link is a marketing creation; because their approaches to writing seem to have little in common. Reading Trollope’s books (and listening to her talk about them in public) you get the impression she is trying to address issues – from the dynamics of the small village to the breakdown of the family to the experiences of the Bridget Jones generation. Her skill in achieving this through novels accounts for much of her impact, although it has attracted some criticism – one review of Girl from the South, for example, warned of the occasional dangers of Message Alert (1).

Miller’s previous novels include The Good Mother (1986) – ‘the anguished portrait of a woman enmeshed in a custody battle’, according to the publicity – and Family Pictures, ‘a portrait of a family with an autistic child’ (1990). But in The World Below, if Miller addresses issues, she does it very obliquely. The World Below tells the story of a middle-aged woman taking a break from her San Francisco life to spend time in her deceased grandmother’s Vermont home, and uncovering the story of her grandmother’s life through old diaries. There are some nice insights into generational differences, the changing relationships between the sexes and the impact of sickness and death, but these insights are more inferred than stated. This is engaging fiction that you read for its storytelling rather than its world analysis.

The biggest ‘issue’ Miller seems to be confronting at the moment is one she is dealing with in non-fiction. She is currently completing a book that is ‘part-informative, part-memoir’ on the subject of Alzheimer’s disease, which she has been working on for almost a decade. Her father suffered from the disease, and she recognises that Alzheimer’s has wider resonance today. ‘Everybody’s haunted by it’, she says. Why? ‘People are living longer, and our parents are increasingly afflicted by it, so a lot of us will get it.’ I suggest that one of the reasons people are haunted by Alzheimer’s is because it symbolises how mental degeneration can afflict the sharpest of minds – à la Iris Murdoch. She agrees – her father was a historian, so the advent of Alzheimer’s strikes her as ‘ironic’.

At a time when novelists in the UK are relentlessly sought out for their socio-political commentary on a whole range of issues, talking to Miller is like – well, talking to a novelist about her novel. Which is fine – just so long as you don’t think you’re talking to Trollope.

The World Below was published by Bloomsbury on 4 March 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Read on:

Post-radical depression, by Jennie Bristow

(1) The problem with young people, Observer, 3 February 2002

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Topics Politics


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