I've been waiting impatiently for this book to arrive in the mail from an independent book seller and devoured it within 24 hours.
Alex Miller created an irresistible world with likable characters. We meet the Dom Pacos and his Tunisian wife Houria at the end of World War II who have a cafe for the Middle Eastern men who work at the nearby slaughter houses in the Vaugirard area of Paris. Dom dies suddenly and Houria's niece Habiha comes from her village to help Houria. Habiha falls in love with an Australian man who happens into the cafe and the two eventually take over when Houria dies. The changes in the area that occur over the years are recounted and the friendly faces, including Tolstoy the Borzoi dog are part of Habiha and John's lives, but they never become Parisians, unlike Houria.
John always longs to go back to Australia and have work more suited to him than helping in the cafe. Habiha is focused on the daughter she hasn't conceived. She reassures the daughter that all will be well, she will bring her to life. She promises John she will go to Australia after she has shown her daughter to her father in Tunisia.
As Habiha approaches her late 30s, she becomes frantic and takes steps that have terrible consequences. She believes she has a right to do whatever she must to have a baby and draws strength from a memory of her grandmother who she imagines would approve. Her beauty, skillful cooking, love for John, and soulful singing for the men who eat at the cafe contrast with her monstrous act.
This story is framed by that of a writer who has retired and lives with his daughter in Melbourne. He is drawn to Habiha's bakery where everyone is infected by her calm, deliberate and friendly manner. When the writer meets John, he hears the story of their lives in Paris, told to him over the course of months.
We are meant to love all the characters, and we do. But the truth is Habiha is monstrous.
Alex Miller, Lovesong, Allen & Unwin, 354 pages.