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In Certain Circles

In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower | edge of evening

Whether the expressions so recently shown on her face belonged to the luminous quality of her eyes, or to the shape of her mouth, or to her nature, neither Zoe nor her mother yet knew: she was only seventeen.

Zoe had awakened in this square stone house on the north side of Sydney Harbour, and learned soon afterwards from her family and their friends that she was remarkable. There was a big garden. There were people of her own size for company. At the end of the short street of old houses in long-established gardens was a white curved beach with rocks, rock pools, very small waves, shells, pebbles, fine sand. She swam before she walked. In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower

Sometimes you read a book which contains answers to questions that you haven’t yet fully articulated. I’ve just been sitting on a bench in the garden, beneath the magnolia, with a riotous racket of birdsong going on all around me. I went out there to leaf through In Certain Circles, to remember why I loved it so. Instead I reread nearly fifty pages — some from the beginning, some from the end. I could quite happily still be out there now.

I could tell you how beautifully zesty the book is, how deftly Howard immerses us in the lives of a quartet of young people, and how swiftly she moves us through the next twenty years of their lives. I could remind you that I love novels set in Sydney. I could tell you that Harrower writes emotions that seem so real: complex and shifting and hardly ever to our credit. And all of these things would be true. But I also loved it because it literally seemed to have the answers, because it was just the right book at the right moment, and these things happen, but they don’t happen every day.

As Kerry astutely noted, in a wonderful blog post earlier this week, sometimes “it’s not necessarily the reviews themselves that are so compelling, but what they tell us about the person who is writing them, and how the books fit into the larger narrative of the writer’s life”. In this case, the answers I was seeking were all about what happens next. What happens if I take one path or another? Who am I if I’m not someone whose days are mainly filled with very young children?

In many ways, In Certain Circles has little to say about motherhood, but what is does say seems distilled to its essence. A childless character says to another, who has staked her whole identity on her now-grown children and is suffering from their loss: “You mothers are egotistical. There are other blows in life.”

I didn’t take notes as I read, but I found an envelope on which I had scribbled ‘time ruptures’ for that is one way in which Harrower’s novel operates. Here’s how James Wood describes the technique in his reappraisal of Harrower in the New Yorker:

Harrower likes to nudge offstage major developments in her narration—marriages, deaths, divorces. She alludes to them glancingly, the better to concentrate on the slow present. This can make her books feel stifling, and at times hermetic. […] A great deal happens invisibly between the three sections of “In Certain Circles,” as it does between the three parts of “To the Lighthouse,” a novel that was perhaps in Harrower’s mind.

We meet Zoe Howard at seventeen: confident, privileged, with every possibility still open before her. Through her older brother Russell, recently back from the prison camps of World War II, she meets Stephen and Anna Quayle, orphaned siblings from a different social circle. It is this quartet, and the shifting relationships between them, that form the claustrophobic core of the novel.

When the second section of the novel opens, Zoe, now twenty-five, has just returned to Sydney after five years living in Paris, working as a photographer. In the third section, time has again moved on and again characters have changed ‘off-stage’ (which always makes me think of Michael Ondaatje: “‘I can’t write novels where the author knows a character completely,’ says Ondaatje. ‘When they’re off stage, they’re off stage; the ending isn’t a closed door. I love the idea of characters having lives outside the book; it makes them equal to the writer and the reader, rather than the author talking down to them, like puppets.'”). Zoe is now forty and far from the confident young woman she once was. And her earlier choices — and those of Anna, Russell and Stephen — force a radical reappraisal of their lives.

This isn’t a book with the answers for everyone. I don’t think that the magic of books works like that. The answers I found are too precise to be generalised. But it is a wonderful book, a book that took its time to reach its readers (Harrower completed it in 1971, but withdrew it from publication & it didn’t come out until 2014), a book that — as my children, who are all still singing a song from the Moose’s nativity would say* — a book that we’re going to enjoy.

*(“It’s a baby, a lovely baby. A baby that we’re going to enjoy.” — You probably had to be there. But it sounded so much like Year 1 were going to be tucking into baby Jesus. The Pip-Pop in particular has had great success applying these lyrics to many things that their author probably didn’t intend. “It’s a wee-wee, a lovely wee-wee!” is a particular favourite.)

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