ELIZABETH HARROWER In Certain Circles. Reviewed by Michael Richardson
The post-World War II themes of this novel are refracted into contemporary Australia with startling force.
Between 1957 and 1966, Elizabeth Harrower published four critically acclaimed novels. Despite the admiration of Patrick White and Christina Stead, all four were out of print by the time Text began reissuing them in 2012. Living in Sydney today, she has not written fiction of substance since abruptly withdrawing In Certain Circles from publication in 1971. In The Burning Library, his book on ‘lost’ Australian writers, Geordie Williamson reflects on her long silence:
Harrower’s fictions were always impeccably detailed microcosms, like dollhouses for grownups. But over time, those same narratives have taken on a gravity and intensity in inverse proportion to their small scale.
Like those earlier novels, In Certain Circles is small in scale. The children of renowned botanists, Zoe and Russell Howard glide through the Sydney social world. Returned from war, Russell is ready to marry his childhood sweetheart, the ambitious budding scholar Lily. Seventeen-year-old Zoe has the naïve confidence of one for whom the world unspools in a predictable pattern of celebrated achievements. Her brother’s friend Stephen Quayle gradually tangles her life into an impossible knot. ‘Nervous, edgy, with reserves of anger, like someone too full of pressing thought to have time for conversation’, Stephen can neither accept the possibility of his own happiness, nor allow Zoe hers.
Raised in an unloving house after the untimely death of their parents, Stephen and his little sister Anna both grapple with the consequences of being pulled into the society circles of the Howards. After Zoe returns from Paris upon the death of her mother, she takes up with Stephen and abandons a promising photographic career, while the widowed Anna floats between relationships. Russell casts himself into social causes, and partners with Stephen to build a thriving printery, refusing the respectable academic milieu Lily desires for him, and which she has herself relinquished to raise her daughters.
Harrower’s prose is relentless in its severity: it hunts the psychological depths of her characters and refuses sentimentality. In the opening pages, Zoe reflects on Stephen:
She had met the first man ever to judge her. That he chose to do it gave him the authority, made him unquestionably her superior. She felt at some level that an essential element, necessary to her very life, had been given to her just in time. If he had not looked at that instant, said those particular words, she might not have survived another hour.
Passages such as this are the true action of the novel, where its knife cuts finest. Until its last pages, grand events happen off the page – Zoe’s brief career as a war photographer, her wedding. This stylistic intensity, the exactitude of each line, makes the novel feel very much of-the-moment despite lying untouched since 1971. While the themes of the novel – class tensions, gender roles, emotional tyranny, the vagaries of pity – suit its setting in the decades after World War II, In Certain Circles refracts those themes into contemporary Australia with startling force.
Divided into three parts, the novel is not without warts. Transitions between time periods are clunky or confusing at times, while certain lesser characters are flat and unrealised, such as Anna’s confused paramour Tom, who plays a pivotal role in the sudden rush of drama that brings the novel to its climax. Even Lily lacks true distinction until the last third of the novel and the slow reveal of her unhappiness. In a certain sense, however, this half-drawn quality reflects the self-involved, inward spiral of the novel’s concerns: this is the story of two pairs of siblings, when all is said and done. Even Sydney becomes a mere stretch of beach between Stephen and Zoe’s cottage and the Howard family home; the harbour’s famed beauty ‘a rather too-literal painting of itself’’. On the rare occasions the environment enters centre stage, its rapid transformation serves primarily to reflect back to Zoe her own turbulent inner world.
Harrower displays a disciplined refusal to judge her characters. Stephen becomes tyrannical and even cruel, less and less the ‘weird, irascible character out of some dense Russian novel’ of the opening pages. Yet Harrower retains a certain sympathy for his depression, the struggles of his upbringing, the silent choices he makes to be the man he thinks Zoe wants. Conversely, she writes with deep empathy of Zoe’s worn down confidence, her sense of being deprived of agency and caught in self-pity, and yet is unflinching in accounting for her complicity in the situation.
Shifts in character are matched by shifts of language. During Zoe’s first encounter with Anna, she realises that the younger girl disbelieves her invitation to visit again:
And why shouldn’t she? Zoe wondered, sipping icy pineapple juice. I’ve often said things without meaning them. Often I don’t mean what I say. For a moment she felt chastened by she hardly knew what. Then she resisted the sinking and doubt. After all, when she said these spontaneous charming things it was rather in the nature of practice, as someone might work at language or diving, as if there were no limit to the excellence he might achieve.
Here is all the brashness of privileged youth, but also the brittleness of a young woman who suspects the calibre of her own performance. Later, in the strained depths of her marriage, this brittleness has come to shape her:
The early morning had a glassy fragility, and Zoe felt the link between herself and Stephen to have the same extreme fragility and transparency; a breath could shatter it. Stephen churned through the water. She shivered and pulled on her towelling coat, prudently absent from past and future.
This is masterful writing. Bright youthful prose has given way to fragility; Zoe’s faith in the limitless possibility of life replaced by a desire for fleeting moments of companionship. Each sacrifice and compromise that occurs in the novel, each neglected ambition or suppressed slight, enables Harrower to excavate further subtleties in the complex power relations pity produces. If this all sounds heavy going, the economy of Harrower’s writing prevents stagnation. So too do the shifts in perspective, with sections focalised through Anna and her diaries, and occasionally Lily.
While differences of class figure in the novel, Harrower’s larger preoccupation is gender. As Anna tells Zoe late in the novel, ‘Women are still in their early days. There isn’t very much for them to be like without upsetting preconceptions.’ Zoe knows this well, having abandoned her photographic and film career to a marriage shaped by Sydney’s stultified cultural environment. As Stephen remarks with typically malicious sexism, even if a woman were to have a brilliant directorial career, ‘with all respect, it isn’t very likely that she’d rise up here, is it?’ At the time, Zoe delights in this denigration, this assault on her vanity. Only later does its price become clear.
In Certain Circles could be read because it marks the unexpected re-emergence in the present of a ‘lost’ great of Australian literature, or because it made the short- and long-lists for various awards, including the Miles Franklin. Yet this is a book that demands reading on its own terms, for its unflinching prose and the surgical precision with which it dissects these intertwined lives encircled by their differences.
Elizabeth Harrower In Certain Circles Text Publishing 2014 PB 256pp $22.99
Michael Richardson is an academic and writer. Once, he was the only Australian speechwriter in Canadian politics. He can be found on the web at www.marichardson.net and on Twitter @richardson_m_a
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