Saturday, January 24, 2015

"In Certain Circles," by Elizabeth Harrower

I was in Sydney, Australia, a few months ago for a few days, and perhaps partly because of that visit, when I read about Elizabeth Harrower’s novel “In Certain Circles” (Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 2014), I felt drawn to read it. Harrower is well known in Australia for her novels published in the 1950s and 60s, but she withdrew this particular book just before publication in 1971, and it is only now being published. I haven’t read anything about why she withdrew it, but we can guess that perhaps it was so personal that she wasn’t willing to expose it to the public. Maybe she now feels that enough time has gone past, and maybe some of the models for the main characters are no longer alive? Note that this is pure speculation on my part. In any case, it is certainly a mystery. The novel is beautifully constructed and written. It focuses on four main characters, Zoe and her brother Russell, and Stephen and his sister Anna. Starting when they are in their teens and twenties, these four characters from very unlike backgrounds connect and relate to each other in shifting ways over the years. There is deep friendship, there is romance and marriage, there are secrets, there are inescapable influences from the past, and there is betrayal. Each of the four characters has her or his positive and negative characteristics. Harrower helps us understand all four, and sympathize with if not like each one. One of the themes is how deeply we are all influenced by our pasts, especially our family lives. Another is how even great love and great friendship can shift, change, and even disappear. There is also a nuanced portrayal of how social class differences matter, even when some characters like to think that they don't. For me, in the end, the Sydney setting was attractive and an added bonus, but it was the story and the characters that gripped me. I am glad that Harrower finally, these 43 years later, decided to allow “In Certain Circles” to be published. (An added note: Today is the five-year anniversary of the day I started this blog.)
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