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Delicious descriptions from Elizabeth Harrower’s country

April 15, 2016
Elizabeth Harrower, A few days in the country and other stories

The hardback cover

In my recent review of Elizabeth Harrower’s short story collection, A few days in the country, and other stories, I included a few excerpts from the stories, but they primarily were chosen to reflect the themes and content. In this post, I want to focus on her use of language, through just a small number of examples as, of course, I don’t want to steal the thunder from the book itself.

Because Harrower’s focus is the psyche and human relationships, her “country” is as much the mind and heart as setting or place. Consequently, my selections here will cover this wider concept of country, but I’ll start with a physical description. It takes place off Scotland Island in Sydney’s beautiful Pittwater, in “The beautiful climate”. The family, Hector Shaw and his wife and daughter, are fishing, at Hector’s command of course. Here is the scene:

Low hills densely covered with thin gums and scrub sloped down on all sides to the rocky shore. They formed silent walls of a dark subdued green, without shine. Occasional painted roofs showed through. Small boats puttered past and disappeared.

I don’t think I need to tell you how our women are feeling, do I?

Here is a description of Alice and her favoured brothers, in “Alice”:

Meanwhile, the boys swam in attention and praise, and at an early age had had so much that they never needed it again, could afford to discard that particular life buoy and plunge out with a glossy confidence in their qualities. Alice never even learned to dog-paddle. Who would notice if she sank? The deep end was too risky for a girl whose brilliant dark-red curls could be so easily overlooked.

I love the sustained metaphor here.

In “English lesson”, protagonist Laura is devastated by a letter (from a man) responding to a letter of hers (which her friends told her she should write). We are not told the content of these letters, just the impact on Laura:

But could shock have the effect of bringing about a permanent physical change? Could she doubt it? Everything about her, physical and metaphysical, had sunk, shrunk. She was shorter, pruned, slightly murdered.

Can we doubt the impact?

And finally, here is Dan from “The cost of things”, unhappy in his marriage, but returning to his wife after a long business trip away during which he has had an affair:

He felt like someone who has had the top of his head blown off, but is still, astonishingly, alive, and must learn to cope with the light, the light, and all it illuminated.

If these don’t appeal to you, then maybe Harrower isn’t the writer for you, but if they do, I say, hop to it … and find one of her books.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2016 2:43 am

    Very nice! I like “slightly murdered.” Could we call that an oxymoron?

    • April 16, 2016 8:01 am

      I’ll look up Mr Farnsworth! Actually, Harrower does use formal rhetorical devices. I reckon “light, light … illuminated” is a clever variation.

  2. April 16, 2016 4:56 am

    Wow! This is a stunning image:

    “Everything about her, physical and metaphysical, had sunk, shrunk. She was shorter, pruned, slightly murdered.”

    • April 16, 2016 8:02 am

      Glad you liked it RG. That one really stands out – as I said in my previous post, she can just make you gasp.

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