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Elizabeth Harrower, In certain circles (Review)

March 31, 2016

Elizabeth Harrower, In certain circlesThere’s an interesting story behind Elizabeth Harrower’s last novel, In certain circles. It was all set for publication in 1971, following her very successful The watch tower (my review), when Harrower pulled it. Why? I wondered about this as I read it, and I have some ideas, but more on that anon. First, the story.

In certain circles chronicles the lives from youth until their forties of five people – well-to-do brother and sister Russell and Zoe Howard, orphans from an impoverished background Stephen and Anna Quayle, and Lily the teenage sweetheart and then wife of Russell. Part way through the novel, Stephen and Zoe also marry, as does Anna outside the circle. The story starts and ends with Zoe, but the perspective shifts a little along the way between the various characters. It’s a story of idealism and wasted opportunities, of the decisions we make (or don’t make) and their unintended consequences. It’s also about the way the past can drive those decisions. The setting is Sydney, not long after World War 2, though it’s never made explicit. Harrower is not interested in time and place, just people – who they are, why they do what they do, and how it impacts their deepest selves.

Commentators discussing Harrower invariably tell us that Australian literary luminaries Patrick White and Christina Stead praised her writing. You can see why – she writes with their intensity, probing deeply into the psyches of her characters to explore motive, feeling and behaviour. I’d also liken her to the recently deceased Anita Brookner, who, coincidentally, was born the same year as Harrower, 1928, and who also intensely explored the psyches of her characters.

The thing about Harrower’s writing here, though, is that while character is her focus, a strong sense of form underpins her style. The novel is, for example, presented in three clearly delineated parts, which facilitates time-jumps without the need for extensive explanation and gives it the narrative arc of a classic three-act drama.

So, Part 1 is set just after the war. Zoe is a bright, “fearless”, world-at-her-feet young seventeen-year-old, who often doesn’t mean what she says and is not known for her “social conscience”. She is, clearly, ready for a fall. A perfect Act 1 set up in other words. Big brother Russell, on the other hand, has been touched by experience, including being a prisoner-of-war, and has a more realistic perspective of the world. He sees disadvantage and he wants to right it. The opening scene is a tennis party at the Howards, to which Russell has invited the orphans and at which his fiancée Lily is also present. Our five characters are thus properly introduced to us and each other.

Part 2 starts eight years later, when Zoe is 25 years old and has just returned, upon her mother’s death, from a blossoming career in film and photography in Europe. The course of her life changes at this point, and she marries Stephen who is now in business with her brother Russell. She finds herself deeply in love with this man who, when she was 17, had both attracted and repelled her with his judgement of and opposition to her. In this part, the characters have settled into some sort of stable routine, but we readers see the cracks even if the characters themselves don’t. Take Zoe, our main character, for example:

Excessively, even for someone in love, Zoe had found a chameleon-like capacity for fitting herself to Stephen’s moods.

Hmm, we think … and this too:

From riding the crest of a wave, from taming tigers, she had turned into this new thing–a suppliant, but a suppliant with a purpose: all to be well with Stephen.

The conversations between them are chilling – because Zoe submits and submits her self to his views and ideas.

Meanwhile, Lily, for whom family is all (“it was not only a sort of pity Lily felt for anyone unrelated to her, but an involuntary antagonism”) and who has given up her career for her children, is becoming frustrated with Russell’s focus on a wider humanity. And Anna, now widowed, realises where her love truly lies – Russell.

Then comes Part 3, as it inevitably must. Zoe is nearly 40, and not happy. (We could have told her!) After 15 years of self-denial and subsuming her self to Stephen, she is a changed woman, to her detriment, and she knows it. That fall we assumed at the beginning has finally come – and not just for Zoe. The denouement is dramatic, rapid and effective in shaking up the characters’ complacencies and self-destructive compromises, just as you’d rightly expect in a narrative of this sort.

Besides this three-part structure, Harrower also employs form in her character handling. The novel starts with two sets of siblings and one outsider, Lily, but by the middle of part 2, they have re-formed into two couples and a different outsider, Anna. This rearranging of pairs-and-outsider creates parallels and counterpoints that keep the story tight and focused, exposing tensions and differences.

“wasted years”

But form, of course, is used for a purpose, which is to explore themes important to Harrower. In certain circles is not as claustrophobic or as chilling as The watch tower, but they have similar concerns, such as loneliness and a feeling of entrapment. These play out differently in In certain circles, where the focus is on wasted talents, through lack of opportunities, and wasted lives, through difficult pasts or poor decisions, but the result is the same – loneliness, desolation, and entrapment, conscious or otherwise.

Early in the novel, when she’s still 17, Zoe escapes a room of older people, “away from miserable white faces and wasted years”. Ironically, this is exactly how Zoe finds herself twenty odd years later, because Stephen has, “without the least desire to deflate or wound”, dissolved the last of her “ideas and ambitions”, leaving her trapped, demoralised, “detesting the person she had become”.

Zoe is not the only one. The other characters too find themselves having wasted at least some aspect of their lives, some because they can’t let go of (or are damaged by) the past, others because they honour decisions and commitments they’ve made.

There are many roads by which these characters come to the wasteland in their lives, and Harrower presents them with an acuity that is also generous. She doesn’t judge. Even when, at the beginning, Zoe is arrogant and self-involved, Harrower encourages us to like her because she’s lively and good-hearted rather than malicious. Stephen would be even easier for us to dislike, but his pain, his genuine love for his sister, and his obliviousness to “the damage he had done”, enable us to understand rather than hate him.

And now, here I am, way past when I should have finished this post, but having barely touched on the writing – and I should discuss it, because it is delicious. Harrower nails feelings, attitudes and motives with a pithiness that takes your breath away. Watch out for a Delicious Descriptions post!

So, returning to my opening para, why might Harrower have pulled her novel? I understand that she submitted it, pulled it and re-worked it, then submitted it again, and pulled it permanently. I can see why she may have done this: the drama that precipitates the resolution is a little far-fetched though she explains it well enough to make it work; Russell is comparatively shadowy even among the less developed characters; and occasionally the perspective feels a little clumsy or laboured, as if she hasn’t fully resolved how to bring all her personages into the frame as she desires. But, are these serious enough for the book not to have been published? I don’t think so. Neither did Text, and neither, we have to presume, did that original publisher. It is literature’s gain that this book has finally seen the light of day.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the book.

awwchallenge2016Elizabeth Harrower
In certain circles
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014
250pp.
ISBN: 9781922182968

30 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2016 11:02 pm

    Yes, I did like it, a lot, and while I admire Harrower’s quest for perfection, I am really glad that Text persuaded her to release it for publication!

    • March 31, 2016 11:35 pm

      Yes, I am too, Lisa – she really gets right into the nitty gritty of people doesn’t she, and in such prose.

      • April 1, 2016 9:31 am

        Yes indeed, I suspect that there’s a backstory of her own life just waiting to be told…

        • April 1, 2016 9:38 am

          Let’s hope someone is doing it or that she leaves papers that will enable it to be done. I know we shouldn’t be so curious but it’s hard not to be, if you’re a reader.

        • April 1, 2016 9:48 am

          My thoughts exactly. Though also, it is not too late for her to be writing her memoirs…

        • April 1, 2016 10:56 am

          Agree, it’s not, though somehow I have a feeling she’s not – but I’d love to be proved wrong 😉

  2. ian darling permalink
    March 31, 2016 11:07 pm

    I hadn’t heard of Elizabeth Harrower and looked her up on Wikipedia. Interesting how the publication of In Certain Circles has raised her profile and her other books should get back in print. She sounds like an interesting novelist.

    • March 31, 2016 11:37 pm

      She’s an excellent novelist Ian. If you ever wanted to try her, though, I’d suggest The watch tower. It’s such a tight, though really pretty desolate read. I’m hoping to read a collection of her short stories in the next month, so watch out for that (but don’t hold your breath!)

    • ian darling permalink
      April 1, 2016 10:46 pm

      It might not be the sort of thing that could happen but it might be a nice idea if a publisher could revive some neglected midlist novels because there must be some overlooked minor classics out there that just got a bit overlooked.

  3. March 31, 2016 11:28 pm

    I have her Watchtower (though haven’t read it yet), and this sounds less strong but definitely worthwhile. Authors can be their own harshest critics can’t they? They probably should be, but it does sound that this merited publication.

    • March 31, 2016 11:41 pm

      Yes, they sure can, Max. I’m glad to hear you have The watch tower, even if you haven’t read it. I know that feeling!! I think you’d like it if you do find time to read it. This is definitely a great read, but at times, I could sense her hand working and reworking. Power of suggestion perhaps, given I’d heard the story when it was published in 2014, but I think not totally. And I’d argue anyhow that the quality of her working/reworking is that of an expert trying to improve on something already very good. I’m not surprised Text asked to publish it once they’d managed to read the ms.

  4. April 1, 2016 1:00 am

    I liked this a lot even though I had problems with the ending.

    • April 1, 2016 1:07 am

      Yes, I agree re the ending, Guy, particularly re how the ending is precipitated. But yes, I liked it a lot too.

      I’m guessing you’ve reviewed it – I’ll come have a look.

  5. April 1, 2016 5:55 am

    This sounds really good. I was thinking from your tease that the must have been something either scandalous in the book or some ominous mystery but a dissatisfied author is neither of those. They are sometimes their own worst enemy. Glad the book finally made it to publication!

    • April 1, 2016 7:59 am

      I think you’re right, Stefanie, about being their own worst enemy … I guess it tends to be the artistic sensibility to never be satisfied?

      • April 2, 2016 12:15 am

        Especially when You have an idea in your head of what it should be and it never can quite measure up!

        • April 2, 2016 1:19 am

          Oh yes, we’ve all confronted that, haven’t we! Indeed I confronted it in writing this post! It didn’t come out quite the way I intended there’s only so much reading time I can “waste” on writing!!

  6. April 1, 2016 8:45 am

    I remember I liked this book, but was dissatisfied with the ending. Now that I have read Debra Adelaide’s novel, Women’s Pages, I can understand how writers invest a lot of time in creating their characters, as well as their story line. Knowing when to end a story would be difficult.

    • April 1, 2016 9:36 am

      Yes, I think you’re right Meg … Endings are probably the hardest – unless you have one of those real inspirations that you just know is perfect. Even just ending a blog post is hard I find so a novel! Well, I can’t imagine!

  7. April 1, 2016 5:42 pm

    Sounds like a must read. I have, and have read The Watch Tower and The Long Prospect, thanks to Text, and will get this one asap. Makes you wonder what other authors are suddenly going to pop back into prominence.

    • April 1, 2016 6:42 pm

      It sure does Bill. There are so many authors from the past – and Text is reintroducing many aren’t they – who would surprise and interest many of us. I remember falling love with a whole slew of new old authors via Virago 3 decades ago (including Australia’s Elizabeth von Arnim.)

      • April 1, 2016 8:39 pm

        I first came to ‘forgotten’ Australian women authors, Ada Cambridge for example, through a series republished under the management of Dale Spender in the 1980s – through Pandora maybe, but I don’t really remember.

        • April 1, 2016 9:00 pm

          Yes, I came across here through a couple of different publishing houses – one was Pandora perhaps (I certainly read a Praed published by Pandora) and the other was the University of New South Wales Press which was doing an Australian women writers series.

  8. Deepika Ramesh permalink
    April 2, 2016 6:31 am

    This sounds like a great book. Thank you for this post, Sue. I have never heard of this novelist, and I like the background that you offered. Very interesting! And, gorgeous cover.

    • April 2, 2016 8:37 am

      Yes, thanks Deepika. She’s not well enough known. BTW The cover is by one of our most successful designers here.

  9. Bryce permalink
    April 2, 2016 4:17 pm

    Thank you, Sue, for your thoughtful and thorough review, which rekindled my own enjoyment of the novel. It unfolds a tragedy, yet the prose, the depth of the characters, and the insights into the human condition make it a delight to read. Even though Russell is “comparatively shadowy”, I liked how Harrower uses him to illustrate the bad effect a good person can have others because they don’t measure up to his goodness. And the way Harrower makes us love Zoe and then shows us what becomes of her! Are we all, to some extent, like Zoe – as she says at the end, slow learners?

    • April 2, 2016 4:48 pm

      Yes, I think that’s it Bryce, her characters all have a level of depth, even the more shadowy ones. And yes, I suspect most of us probably are slow learners. When I was looking at it again last night I came across an early comment to 17-year-old Zoe from her mother telling her personal relations aren’t everything. She says: “I have a full life, husband, children, but where I would be without work as well I don’t know […] You’ll come to grief if you invest your life in individuals. I’ve seen it happen”. Hmm … she was right!

      It’s interesting I think that Zoe and Lily regress quite a bit from what Mrs Howard had worked out, which seems a bit counter-intuitive in terms of social progress, and yet Harrower makes it believable.

      • Bryce permalink
        April 3, 2016 10:36 am

        I’d completely forgotten that comment from Zoe’s mother. Now, knowing it’s there, it seems to add yet another layer to the story.

        • April 3, 2016 2:58 pm

          It does, doesn’t it Bryce. And it tells me why, to really write a proper review, you need to read a book twice, which I didn’t do. I’d marked this, but hadn’t taken it properly in … until I flicked back through the book to write my follow up post.

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