Delicious descriptions from Elizabeth Harrower’s Circles

Elizabeth Harrower, In certain circlesIn my recent review of Elizabeth Harrower’s In certain circles, I focused on the book’s form and overall themes, and warned that I’d produce a Delicious Descriptions to share some of her writing. So, here it is, organised by headings to keep it simple …


I didn’t focus on gender in my review, but this is Harrower, and it is one of her ongoing concerns. It was in The watch tower, where the powerlessness of neglected young women put them in danger’s way, psychological and physical, and it’s here, in this novel, where women’s choices are constrained by expectations and conventions.

I’ll just share one scene. It occurs when Zoe responds to Lily who doesn’t believe Zoe understands how some women put children first. Zoe feels she understands only too well:

‘What I do understand is that at any point in a woman’s life she may come across something like a cement pyramid in the middle of the road. Another person. People. She’s capable of sitting there, convinced that it would be impossible to forsake her position, till it becomes a private Thermopylae. This sort of block was probably designed for the survival of our species, but the cost’s high. What makes men superior is that they don’t – on the whole – stop functioning forever because of another person. They lack this built-in handicap, and are they lucky!’

Zoe is finally seeing the light – though where she sees this “built-in handicap” originating is not clear! She admits elsewhere that she’s been complicit in her dismantlement, that she’d “agreed to be devalued”, but she’s also aware that there are other drivers. It’s part of the complexity of this novel that nothing, including gender, is black-and-white.

Emotional states

Harrower captures her characters’ emotional states with breathtaking economy. Since they’re short I’ll give you a few examples.

Zoe, soon after meeting Stephen:

He despised her. An invisible hand dragged a steel rake across her body.

My, that’s visceral isn’t it?

Here is Anna during a conversation with Russell. By this time their unstated feelings for each other are starting to affect their ability to relate naturally:

Speaking in a tone of enormous objectivity, looking straight ahead, Anna felt her skeleton waver secretly, as though it were seaweed pressed about by movements of deepest seas, invisible on the glittering surface.

You feel the effort it takes her, here, to keep strong. I also love this description of Anna after the crisis:

Anna was stared at. As though by choice, she left her face undefended, and her trustfulness was felt by others as a gift of purest generosity, as a sort of honour.

By contrast, here is her brother Stephen around the same time, finally confronting the waste of his and Zoe’s relationship:

Like someone kidnapped and dragged across a frontier into a place where the language and laws were wholly unknown, he glanced about with a mix of desperation and bafflement.


While the interior is Harrower’s focus, she can write exteriors beautifully, usually to reflect, or contrast, her characters’ emotions.

Anna, widowed not so long ago and wiser in affairs of the heart, talks to Zoe about time being short. Zoe, in the early rosy years of her marriage, doesn’t understand her, thinking:

This was the wrong moment for pensive utterances–a gorgeous, glowing evening with the beach down there suddenly deserted and the sand turning cool and white, and the calm harbour a bay of light, and the trees beatified by the late sunlight.

Blissful – and yet methinks the “cool and white” could also intimate the chill around the corner?

And here are Zoe and Stephen, after fifteen years of marriage:

They went along the beach and swam in Russell’s pool before anyone was awake. The sun rose swiftly and built a shifting honeycomb of light on the green floor of the pool. The early morning had a glassy fragility, and Zoe felt the link between herself and Stephen to have that 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.

I mean, really, that last sentence. It’s a kicker isn’t it?

This was not an easy post to write, not because it was hard to find good examples to share but because it was hard to choose from so many delicious descriptions. All I can say is that I hope those I’ve chosen are good enough to inspire you to read this book, if you haven’t already.

14 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions from Elizabeth Harrower’s Circles

  1. I was inspired a lot when I read your review, Sue. Now I don’t think I can swallow the urge to buy the book. 🙂 Thank you for this lovely post.

      • The thing is naipul is an incredible writer too; every time I pick it up there’s a sentence or phrase that takes my breath away. I’m kinda getting my finger on what is failing me with it, but still not quite enough to convey eloquently…

        • I think it’s the lack of real interactions with other people/characters; while the people who dip in and out of his life are evoked or described or portrayed to their core swiftly and with a keen eye, Naipul always seems detached and an outsider, but not just in a poetic way but as if other people are always lesser or bizarre or caricatures despite being so real? IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO DESCRIBE ARGH

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