Her compressed and coded thoughts exploded between them

in certain circlesIn Certain Circles
by Elizabeth Harrower

I first heard about Elizabeth Harrower in a New Yorker article a couple of years ago that celebrated the republication of the elderly Australian author’s works. It included the intriguing detail that this would be the first opportunity to read her fifth novel, In Certain Circles, because back in 1971 the author decided at the last moment not to proceed with its publication.

There is no obvious clue to what Harrower could have disliked about her work, as this is a tremendously well written novel. Perhaps she didn’t like its negative tone, because this is not an uplifting read. It is deeply sad, but not due to big disastrous events. Its sadness is the type that comes from life’s disappointments, poor decisions that are only revealed to have been wrong several years later.

It doesn’t start out with an especially sad tone. When we meet main character Zoe Howard she is 17, fully aware of her beauty and privilege, living as she does at the opulent end of Sydney Harbour. Her older brother Russell was a POW during the war, forever changing his outlook on the world and the circles he wants to move in. He introduces her to his friends Anna and Stephen Quayle, siblings who were orphaned and left in the hands of a poor abusive uncle. Despite their very different circumstances, the four connect in a way that keeps their lives bound together far beyond Russell and Stephen’s shared university course.

“Zoe’s words repeated themselves in the living silence between them. She had a feeling that neither of them had chosen to speak the words that had emerged. It was as if two angular creatures made of metal and wire, invisible, standing outside, above and all round them, had spoken instead, mistranslating with malice.”

Time passes oddly in this book. A few chapters cover a couple of days in the run-up to Russell’s wedding. Then in the next chapter years pass in a series of letters that Anna writes. Then there is another intense period a few years later again. And so on. It always feels sudden and disconcerting when the narrative jumps, because much is left unsaid.

The lives of the four do not proceed as they expect, or as I expected. Their careers and relationships change over time, but what Harrower really explores is how their personalities change. She delves into how years of devotion to a subject or person irretrievably changes you – whether for good or ill. There are oblique mentions of depression and other forms of mental illness, but mostly the emphasis is on compromise, missed or misunderstood opportunities, losing the spark that perhaps once defined who you were.

“While she and Russell inspected the atoms of each other’s eyes, her compressed and coded thoughts, banked tighter every day, exploded between them.”

The writing is gorgeous, with quotable lines on every page. But sorrow is etched deep into the story and I don’t think this novel can have helped my mood over the last week. When you’re in the right mood for some beautiful desolation, I highly recommend this.

Published 2014 by the Text Publishing Company.

Source: Christmas present from my Dad.

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