Malouf came to the novel form somewhat later than to poetry, and there is an aspect of experiment in An Imaginary Life which suggests that it is not quite polished. This may be unfair, since a better appreciation of the work might lie in seeing it as somewhere in between fiction and poetry. Certainly the later passages are best read as poetry, redolent as they are with ambiguity and visual and oral densities.
It would be difficult to guess Malouf’s nationality on the evidence of this novel, but he is, in fact, an Australian, and he has used variations on the themes of An Imaginary Life to deal with his own country. He is from Brisbane, and his 1975 novel, Johnno, is about that town, as is his most successful novel, Harland’s Half Acre, published in 1984. In both of these works, Malouf brings the intelligent, disciplined man into confrontation with the savage, if, in the case of these novels, not quite so savage as the Child. The problem of how a man learns from that which is contrary to his own inclinations and training and of how it broadens him regardless of whether he likes it is clearly a constant in Malouf’s work. In An Imaginary Life, the problem is explored in lyrically tragic terms; in Harland’s Half Acre, that metaphysical aura is eschewed for a broader, realistic, and sometimes satirical look at how that civilization which Ovid imagined has not gone quite right.