Our resident author and one of the Salty Popcorn book reading machines, Kernel Morgan, reviews, nay, analyses the novel IN CERTAIN PLACES by Elizabeth Harrower. A book Harrower finished in 1971 and prior to handing in for publishing pulled it. Morgan semi explains her reasoning below, but after 44 long years, the book sees the light of day thanks to the peeps at Text Publishing. It released back in March of this year and you can buy it HERE or from good book shops. Enjoy Morgan’s review and share your thoughts with us in the comments. All the best……………JK.
IN CERTAIN CIRCLES is a domestic drama set in post-war Sydney, following two sets of siblings from adolescence to middle age. It is set out in three parts and is 250 pages long. It is a long lost manuscript, shelved by the author Elizabeth Harrower for over 40 years, until recently rediscovered and brought to the public by Text Publishing.
IN CERTAIN CIRCLES is a literary novel about two contrasting young women – the rich Zoe Howard and the poor Anna Quayle – and what results from their different approaches to life and love. The story is told from a close third person point of view that follows Zoe for the most part, with the last fifteen pages of both Part 1 and Part 2 switching to follow Anna’s thoughts and diary entries. Anna is solemn and accepting and down-to-earth. Zoe is a spoilt snob, privileged and entitled.
Zoe decides to marry Stephen Quayle (Anna’s brother) when she is grieving the loss of her mother. He saves her from a literal drowning off a boat on the ocean, and perhaps an emotional drowning as she attempts to reconcile her mollycoddled world view with the blinding actuality of death. It seems inexplicable that she would choose Stephen as a husband. However it highlights that Stephen is a rock, an immovable unchangeable rock. This is surely his appeal, his steadfastness. All the characters have each other pigeon-holed based on some first-impressions from when they were young adults. Zoe sees Stephen as an intellectual equal to her brother Russell (who is something of a selfless messiah) but Stephen lacks Russell’s internal security, and the comparison cripples him. Stephen doesn’t have the freedom to be emotionally generous because he had to battle financially to make his way in the world.
Much of the second half of the novel is spent with Zoe navel-gazing about her marriage to Stephen and how best to please him. Zoe and Stephen’s marriage is like a working example of the adage ‘Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed.’
Zoe is surely the most frustrating female character since Sally Bowles in CABARET. She doesn’t occupy reality. She is a bad communicator. But it is her stoicism that is most unforgiveable. She is unaware that she and her husband are opposites until her brother points it out to her.
Zoe explains to Anna: “Let’s blame my doting parents and be in fashion. Nothing was expected of me except that I should please myself. I can see now that I needed and yearned for a person and a task that would make extreme demands so that I could know who I was. But there were no pressures. A few examinations were made much of. I was still praised till self and wants came out of my ears. The self-dramatising amused the family and they encouraged it. Self-indulgence on their part.”
A potential suicide attempt in the final fifty pages increases the pace and acts as a truth serum on all the players, leading to a series of confessionals. This feels a little forced, with dialogue crammed with exposition, and the neat tying up of all loose ends. I can see this is intended to be Shakespearian, but the effect is a lopsided novel.
The first two hundred pages are a log of minute daily motions and reflections on family, wealth, and education. Many big events – births, deaths, and marriages – happen offstage and are referred to tangentially after the fact. In that respect it is different from a traditional family saga like THE FORSYTE SAGA or DOWNTON ABBEY or the novels of Austen or the Hellenic sagas. There is very little active plot, and the few presented plot points are of very little consequence. It is mostly descriptions of the characters making a sandwich, or taking a walk, or getting a lift to work.
Stylistically this novel is littered with upside down sentences like “At a coach house turned restaurant, they had lunch” and “Mrs Howard arriving to rescue and replace her, heard this.” Harrower overuses one-word sentences, reducing their impact, when trying to convey inner thought. Much of the speech is untagged, and there is little in word choice that defines the voice of any one character from the rest. It is easy to get lost in the dialogue and not know who is speaking.
There is an enjoyable parallel between Zoe and her nieces, Vanessa and Caroline, going to Europe to pursue a creative passion after high school. Zoe left Australia as a young woman to develop her skills in photography and film, not really considering anyone she leaves at home. When it is Vanessa and Caroline’s turn to flee the continent to be dancers, Zoe must console their mother Lily (her sister-in-law) who is house-bound with grief over their departure. It is these slow discoveries that come with turning the age your parents were when they raised you that introduces the most interesting questions about perspective.
IN CERTAIN CIRCLES is basically a political manifesto about the class divide in Australia layered onto a succession of conversations between a group of friends in kitchens and loungerooms across suburban Sydney homes. There are some incredibly astute observations about people and their relationships, but the method of delivery is awkward, putting words in characters mouths. The author Elizabeth Harrower has said about the book “there are a lot of dead novels out in the world that don’t need to be written”. I agree with her, not all manuscripts are publishable stories.
Kernel Morgan is an author of short fiction, an anthology editor, and a technical writer. Her debut collection was SNIGGERLESS BOUNDULATIONS. She enjoys scowling at children and bursting bubbles. She can be tweeted and stalked at @queenboxi.