There’s something about Elizabeth Harrower. I’ve just read her Stella Prize shortlisted short story collection A few days in the country, and other stories – and wow! Really, just wow! If you’re a regular reader here, you’ve probably noticed that I’m not one to effuse excessively about books, anymore than I’m one to pan them. I’m careful about what I choose to read, so most of what I read I enjoy. There are, after all, a lot of good and inspiring writers around. But Harrower – the more I read her, the more I see why Patrick White and Christina Stead liked her. She really is something. Her shrewd intelligence, sharp wit, and ability to penetrate the hearts of her characters in just a few words is breathtaking.
Enough though of the superlatives. They are easy to say, but can I prove they are just? I’ll give it a go. As I was reading – and enjoying – Tegan Bennett Daylight’s collection Six bedrooms (my review) I was thinking, yet again, about the current preference for writing in first person. I certainly don’t reject this narrative voice, because I do enjoy the intimacy of it, but I sometimes wonder whether it has become a little de rigueur, perhaps reflecting today’s me-focus? I don’t mean, in saying this, to criticise contemporary writers, because the self is part of the zeitgeist – and to capture that you have to use its modes. However, there’s also something to be said for standing back a little, and this is what a third person voice can do. It is, in fact, what Jane Austen is admired for – her clear-eyed ability to analytically, but wittily, comment on her society, to skewer its pretensions, entrapments and hypocrisies. Harrower exerts the same clear eye, though her focus is more the psyche to Jane Austen’s society.
Now to the collection, itself. The first thing to say is that this is a collection of twelve stories, ten of which have been published before, some as far back as the 1960s and others as recent as last year. Some have been multiply published in anthologies, and some have been reworked. Oh, and eleven are told in third person, with just one in first! There is a subtle underlying structure to the collection, with the first four being about young people – starting with ten-year-old Janet in the opening story, “The fun of the fair”, then moving on to teenagers and young women – followed by the later stories which feature married couples or single adults facing the lives they have made for themselves. The last shocking story, the titular “A few days in the county”, could only be at the end.
There is, I’d say, an overall theme to the collection, and it is best expressed by Clelia in the penultimate story, “It is Margaret”. Her mother, Margaret, has just died and Clelia is dealing with her step-father, a very controlling man reminiscent of Felix in The watch tower (my review) and Hector Shaw in this collection (“The beautiful climate”). Clelia thinks:
Here it was again–the mystery that pursued her through life in one form, in another, returning and returning, presenting itself relentlessly for her solution: how should human beings treat each other?
This is one of those chilling stories about the power people, men usually, can exert over others, and the way women, more often than not, submit to that power, as Margaret did. But Margaret – the title allluding to one of my all-time favourite poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and fall” – has died, and “there was no further harm Theo could do”. We hope.
This theme, the way people treat each other, is at the heart of every story, and culminates in the final one, “A few days in the country”. What an unnamed someone did to the protagonist Sophie is not made explicit, only hinted at, but the consequences are devastating for her. An undivulged act having a dramatic impact on the protagonist is also explored in the tenth story, “English lesson”, nicely setting us up for this last story and again suggesting a careful hand in ordering the stories.
The consistent world view regarding power and manipulation in the way human beings treat each other is offset by variety in setting, character, story and tone. I was intrigued, for example, by two that read almost like little fables, “Alice”* and “The cornucopia”. Both are written third person, but with an added layer of distance. That is, they are written from a neutral position (“third person objective”), rather than by a narrator who takes us into the heads of the characters, interpreting their feelings and attitudes (“third person limited” or “subjective”). Regardless of how you describe the technique, however, the change in tone adds variety to the reading experience and forces us to look at humanity from a different, cooler, standpoint.
So, “Alice” then. She is a little girl unappreciated by a mother who prefers her sons:
Luckily for the mother, she also had two sons, younger than the girl–golden, milky boys not made entirely of wood and flames like their mother, nor of guileless life like their sister, but a mixture of both, and somehow not quite enough of either. They were extremely pretty children just the same. Like Alice, the brothers had remarkable hair and eyes, but their great triumph over her was that they were boys. She began to perceive that this, more than curls or thoughtful ways, was what pleased. The question was: could one terribly good girl ever, in her mother’s eyes, equal one boy? And the answer was no. (“Alice”)
The story goes on to chronicle Alice’s life, her struggle to be recognised and accepted in a family, then a world, where boys didn’t have to try, “they were welcome when they arrived.” Alice marries, but still wants her mother’s love. However
If Alice had a fault, dangerous to her survival, it was that she was inordinately reluctant to learn from experience. She would not. Because the lesson would be so sad.
Clelia in “It is Margaret”, by contrast, did learn lessons from her step-father, and you can see why Alice resists learning hers:
She would have known much less about good and evil without his lessons, but she had paid a good deal for them.
Lessons are another ongoing theme in the book.
You have probably realised by now that what I most love about this book is its writing. It just takes my breath away. Besides the variety already mentioned, there’s her language – the economy of her imagery, her tight pointed syntax. She can do irony. There’s not a lot that’s beautiful, for example, in “The beautiful climate”, and in “The cost of things” the real costs are more than monetary. And, yes, she can be funny – albeit mostly with biting wit – like:
The man had a lot to put up with, too, with the world not appreciating him as it should. (“Alice”)
Holding glasses, standing in strategic formation, the men were fascinated. Though the sum of money involved was trivial, it was, nevertheless, money, and the whole story began to symbolise some problem, to involve principles … By the instant, they grew harder. (“The cornucopia”)
It might sound from these that Harrower is only critical of men, but Julia in “The cornucopia”, with her Grades I, II and III friends will put you right on that!
You know how some writers just speak to you? Well, for me, it is writers like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Jolley, Thea Astley and now Elizabeth Harrower, writers whose sharp intellect and sly wit get to the nub of human experience and make me laugh and gasp in the one breath. Now, though, I’m stuck. I want to tell you about every story in this book, but I can’t. I’d bore you, and I need to move on. However, I hope I’ve encouraged you to try Harrower, if you haven’t already. Meanwhile, I can feel a Delicious Descriptions coming on!
* “Alice” was published in The New Yorker last year, and you can read it online. If you do, tell me if it does or doesn’t whet your appetite for more.