Elizabeth Harrower, In certain circles (Review)
There’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.
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.