Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Book Review : "The Transit of Venus" by Shirley Hazzard

In honor of this evening's transit of Venus (next one isn't until 2117, folks!), here is a review of the eponymous book by Shirley Hazzard.

The Transit of VenusThe Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Final review (May 7th, 2008)

Well, by the end, Hazzard won me over, as I got accustomed to her style. This story of the two orphan Bell sisters, Caroline and Grace (and their self-martyring older half-sister, Dora), spanning three decades and as many continents, starts out slowly but ultimately rewards the reader's patience. Once you persevere beyond the first 50 pages or so, the story is never less than absorbing, and builds to a stunning climax.

Hazzard is not your typical narrator, and makes some unusual choices in the way she tells this story. Despite having an omniscient narrator, certain key information is withheld until very near the end (the reader finds out only when Caroline does); conversely, the ultimate fate of one of the other main characters is signalled in a throwaway sentence on page 12. In general, Hazzard assumes that the reader is paying attention; the presentation of key plot information is often subtle, with the reader expected to join the dots. Personally, I far prefer an author who is willing to attribute some smarts to the reader than the type who beats you over the head, but some readers might be put off by the obliqueness of Hazzard's style.

One minor criticism: I thought Caroline, the book's main protagonist, was the least convincingly drawn among the characters - she never quite escaped the whiff of being an abstract embodiment of the qualities the author wanted her to represent. This shows up in the writing - where Caroline is concerned, the author resorts far too often to telling us what she is feeling, as opposed to showing us through what she says and does. This slight clumsiness in the way Caroline's character is presented is in marked contrast to the author's deft portrayal of such characters as Dora, or the different members of the Thrale family. Her descriptions of Christian Thrale's dalliance with his secretary, or of Dora's emotional blackmail techniques, for example, are wickedly, astonishingly, brilliant.

Four stars to Shirley Hazzard for telling a good story, and for writing that assumes the reader actually has a brain and is willing to use it.


Original comments (May 5th, 2008)

I was puzzled by recurrent comments about Hazzard's writing style in people's reviews of this book - they seemed all over the map. Only fifteen pages into the book, I now understand. The fourth sentence in the book is a perfect example:

"Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a roadside with a streak of fencing."
Or stuff like this:
"Even his wet hair gave off an auburn smell"
"Her other discovery of consequence was also not original: that the truth had a life of its own. It was perhaps in such directions that her energies had flowed, leaving her looks to follow as they might."

Normally, I'd consider sentences like these a very bad sign indeed. But there is so much mitigating brilliance that I have to view them as the kind of lapse that's inevitable when a hugely talented writer isn't afraid to take risks.

That's what I tell myself, anyway, to justify carrying on. And I remind myself that my good friend PB raves about this book.

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But just in case, you think everything by Hazzard is worth reading, be aware that she is also capable of producing at least one colossal dud:

The Great FireThe Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"The Transit of Venus" eventually won me over, despite occasional frustration with Shirely Hazzard's mannered and oblique style. But there were relatively few rewards for plodding through this disappointing effort. Hazzard's account of the romance between war veteran Aldred Leith and 17-year old Helen Driscoll spans a large canvas, both geographically and historically - the action unfolds from Hiroshima and Hong Kong to London and Wellington, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, still a time of great political and personal instability.

This choice of backdrop for the central love story suggests a certain ambition on Hazzard's part - this is not meant to be just your average star-crossed love story. No, this is about love in tumultuous times, and the romance of Aldred and Helen is presented as more portentous somehow because it unfolds in a world which has been ripped apart and is still stumbling towards a new order.

I wish I could say that Hazzard has been successful. Certainly, the book garnered more than its share of critical acclaim ("hypnotic", "brilliant", "stunning", "dazzling" say Ann Patchett, Joan Didion, while Anita Shreve is moved to such excesses as "transcendent", "sublime", and "touching infinity"). These are not the adjectives I would have chosen to describe what is, charitably viewed, nothing more than a slightly better written version of "The Bridges of Madison County". By which I mean that Hazzard is skilled enough to avoid the kind of hilarious linguistic atrocities that were littered throughout Waller's book.

But does she have anything more interesting to say than Waller? Not really. Aldred and Helen are possibly two of the dullest protagonists you'll ever come across. Implausibly noble and sensitive, they are cast straight from the same phoney mold as Francesca and Robert over there in Madison County. Which makes "The Great Fire" a love story that is impossible to take seriously, despite Hazzard's bombastic efforts to convince us that Aldred and Helen are cut from some kind of super-special cloth.

They are endlessly fascinating to each other, of course, and the reader is obviously meant to find them charming as all get out. To this end, Hazzard makes a point of reminding us on every other page that
(a) they read books and discuss art and big profound ideas
(b) Aldred is brave and noble
(c) Helen is wise beyond her years,
while further stacking the deck by surrounding them with an assortment of cartoonishly yobbish, nasty, colonial caricatures of vulgar insensitivity.

Oh, and yes -- Helen comes equipped with a delicate, saintly, terminally ill, sagelike, older brother, who dies obligingly on cue, while Aldred has a neurotic, ineffectual wartime friend Peter, to underscore his own manly, heroic nobility and general sensitive warrior qualities.

Aldred and Helen. Two of the noblest, most sensitive, caring, protagonists you could ever hope to meet. And two of the most boring.

Personally, I've never been a fan of hagiography. There's nothing like the odd weakness or character flaw to add depth and keep the reader interested. Give me the sodden moral ambiguity of one of Graham Green's whisky priests, or the cool amorality of Tom Ripley, over the nobility and sensitivity of Aldred Leith any day.

Readers looking to Hazzard for insights into the postwar milieu of South East Asia during the collapse of colonialism will also be disappointed. Other than some generalized hand-wringing about the horrors of war, she has little of interest to add. An omission that is particularly disappointing when one recalls Paul Scott's extraordinarily nuanced and sensitive account (The Raj Quartet) of events in India on the eve of its independence. By contrast, Hazzard's commentary on postwar developments in Asia seems superficial and uninformed.

Despite its rapturous critical reception, "The Great Fire" seemed entirely pedestrian to me, peopled with characters that remained oddly two-dimensional and consequently unaffecting.

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