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Posted on 5 May 2023 in Fiction, Flashback Friday |

SHIRLEY HAZZARD The Transit of Venus. Reviewed by Catherine Pardey

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The recent release of Brigitta Olubas’ biography of Shirley Hazzard has prompted Catherine Pardey to reflect on Hazzard’s 1980 novel The Transit of Venus.

After re-reading The Transit of Venus it is always surprising to re-remember it was published in 1980, as it reads, thanks to its reserved tone and its formal dialogue, like a novel written much earlier. Perhaps the 1950s. Hazzard’s The Great Fire, published in 2003, had a similar feel to it. Like The Transit of Venus, it harks back to World War II and echoes similar sentiments of restraint and order.

The writer Michael Specktor, who worked for some time on a screenplay for The Transit of Venus, described the ethos of the novel as a ‘willingness to destroy its own hope’. This is reflected in the sense of control Hazzard brings to her writing. There is little that is confessional in what Hazzard creates; her characters rarely give in to emotions, and when they do, they usually suffer the consequences. As does, perversely, the reader. When Ted Tice’s love is finally reciprocated, when his hopes are finally realised, he soon learns he has given in to something that has little future. By forewarning the reader of Tice’s death by suicide at beginning of the novel, Hazzard also manages to thwart any hope the reader might have for a happy ending.

Events happen in Hazzard’s novels, but it is rare for us to be given much detail about what the characters think of these events.

You could see the two sisters had passed through some unequivocal experience, which … had formed and indissolubly bound them.

Hazzard later reveals what the unequivocal experience was – the drowning of Caroline and Grace Bell’s parents – and the result, that they are now ‘indissolubly bound’. But what happens between them, what each of them thinks about the experience, is rarely elaborated. Although when it is, the impact is perhaps greater than anything an author who tells all can deliver.

At a distance a door opened, and Professor Sefton Thrale called, ‘Charmian?’ And Caroline Bell could not know why that simple fact could bring her close to tears.

It was a state of mind. Or was it because she had stood long ago in a darkened room, a little girl of six years old, and looked in a long mirror cool as water. And, a door opening, had heard her father’s voice calling ‘Marian?’ – which was her mother’s name.

Mostly the lives of Hazzard’s characters are changed by events, but they seem to segue seamlessly into their new orbits, although never without consequences. It is this distancing from the tragic, from life, which can be confusing at first, but ultimately it is this distancing that is so thought provoking and sometimes so shocking in Hazzard’s fiction. When Caroline Bell speaks her lover’s name and weeps out loud without covering her face, the reader is witness to a horrible moment of raw emotion. It seems so out of place – and out of character – the reader might have to go back to that page to remind themselves that it really happened at all.

Ultimately Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus is not a love story but a story of love. It is clear from the beginning of the novel that this story is not about innocent love, nor will it have a happy ending. Throughout it is an underlying sense of tragedy. Caroline and Grace Bell’s parents drown in the sinking of the Benbow in Sydney Harbour, the same harbour they (and Shirley Hazzard, incidentally) have grown up alongside. Hazzard often suggests, mostly through Caroline Bell’s musings, that all people have their Benbow, an event that throws their lives off course and irrevocably changes them. Caroline turns out to be Ted Tice’s Benbow. Hazzard writes a deep analysis of love from the perspective of all her characters, and while The Transit of Venus is the story of Caroline and Grace Bell, the reader is always aware of the tragedy of Ted Tice.

The timeless nature of Shirley Hazzard’s writing is not just in its rhythm and dialogue but is also in her literary treatment of time. While often carefully conveying dates, Hazzard just as often does not convey them at all. The Transit of Venus covers a vast swathe of time, and not always in linear fashion. We first meet Caroline and Grace Bell after they have arrived in London, but then we are taken back a year and told of the meeting between Grace Bell and her soon-to-be husband, Christian Thrale. Then we are brought back to the present before being swiftly swept back to Caro’s and Grace’s school years in Mosman, Sydney. Whole years are missing, and characters’ stories arc across the sky like planets that disappear below the horizon, leaving the reader with an emptiness, almost a loneliness, which is also a feature of Hazzard’s writing. This feeling is an echo of Hazzard’s memories of growing up in Australia. Brigitta Olubas’ recent biography Shirley Hazzard: A writing life includes a quote from Hazzard that perhaps illustrates her feelings of Australia’s emptiness and loneliness:

Sundays in Australia were not lively. There was a terrible thing on Sunday afternoon when there was the Sunday dinner in the middle of the day and a terrible feeling after. And my parents … would take a little drive somewhere sometimes, and then we would go to the Art Gallery, which oppressed me terribly.

All in all, rather terrible.

That The Transit of Venus can evoke those memories so well over 30 years after its author had left Australia to live in large, vibrant cities around the world, is both an insight into Hazzard herself as well as the country she and the Bell sisters were so happy to leave behind.

Shirley Hazzard The Transit of Venus Virago Modern Classics 1996 (first published 1980) PB 352pp $22.99

Catherine Pardey has reviewed for Rochford Street Review and The Beast.

You can buy The Transit of Venus from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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