Risking extravagance, I'm willing to suggest the intensity of Alice Nelson's third novel, Faithless, captures something of the tragic passion of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
A big call, I know, but it's difficult to remember another novel in recent times that so powerfully engaged my attention. I read the second half in one uninterrupted afternoon session, dragging myself back to the reality of COVID-encumbered Canberra with surprised reluctance.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Australian born Nelson, who now lives in the south of France, has gathered literary gravitas since her first novel, The Last Sky, won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award in 2006 and in 2009 she was named one of The Sydney Morning Herald's Best Young Australian Novelists. Her second novel, The Children's House, was long listed for several awards, and Faithless is a triumph, using a perfectly paced first-person narrative to unravel an obsessively complex love story with elegiac fluency.
Love is of course one of those carelessly scattered abstract nouns, like freedom, evil or truth, that philosophy, mythology, and Hollywood fantasy still struggle to pin down. And it comes in many forms: romantic; erotic; familial or patriotic, to name just a few, but here we are seriously concerned with sexualised (and intellectualised) romantic love.
Cressida, a Cambridge undergraduate and aspirant novelist, is relaxing in the gardens of her wealthy father's Indian estate, reading a collection of Walter Benjamin's essays, when Max, a visiting eminent writer and professor of English literature, engages her in conversation.
He is significantly older than Cressida and has a long unblemished marriage that includes an adult daughter but sharing Cressida's passion for linguistic and aesthetic sensibilities draws them together.
Anxious to impress, Cressida quotes Benjamin on the way a translator is "always standing on the edge of the forest of language" seeking the most effective point of entry. Max, whose work has undergone much translation, is charmed by the serendipity of the thought, since he had once sent a copy of the Benjamin quote to one of his translators. "Instructions of a kind," he says, "though I suspect she was more interested in my overuse of the Oxford comma."
Returning to England, the relationship deepens into an intensely secret affair, and herein lies the nub of Cressida's "faithless" dilemma, as she subjugates her own talented life as a translator and writer for that of an invisible lover. Despite warnings from a close friend, Cressida continues the affair. She fosters an enigmatic child, Flora, and marries Leo, who happens to own an estate in France reminiscent of her family home in India. A mesmeric reflection on the tangled paths of love.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.