Review Blog

Apr 28 2014

In certain circles by Elizabeth Harrower

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Text, 2014. ISBN 9781922182296.
(Age: Senior secondary) Written in 1971 but unpublished until now, this is Elizabeth Harrower's final novel. The psychological strains of relationships are examined in the story of a successful and happy family which attempts to improve the lives of others less fortunate. Zoe, the pampered, talented and generous daughter of the Howards, successful academics, is intrigued by taciturn, aloof Stephen and his younger sister, Anna, but frequently offends them with her casual generosity. Anna is proud and understands Zoe well, but is focused on surviving in her job and tiny flat. Russell, Zoe's brother, has returned from war determined to help those who need it, and is about to marry his old sweetheart Lily. He is Stephen's best friend and they go into business together, while Zoe becomes an energetic and successful photographer in Paris. When Zoe returns from Paris she and Stephen fall in love and marry; Anna marries a musician; Russell and Lily have twins. However, Anna's husband dies and she acknowledges what she has long known, that she loves Russell, and he in turn loves her. The final section of the novel reveals the pain in Zoe's life; Stephen has a cruel need to bully and dominate and Zoe has become afraid. Life has closed in on her, and no longer impetuous or spontaneous she faces a bleak future. She must suffer because of her husband's earlier life, and she who had no inkling of what it meant to be poor must now understand that poverty warps the spirit permanently. Anna and Russell have accepted their separation and similarly expect no happiness, until suicide letters posted accidently arrive and in revealing the truth about their situations act as catalysts for change. All the while the Harbour glitters in the background, successful careers are created, and seemingly enviable lives are lived out in the Sydney of the 60's, and 70's. However, Harrower makes it clear that happiness is fleeting. She examines the psychological minutiae of her characters' lives in prose that is both economical and at times richly metaphorical.
The novel is recommended for better readers.
Jenny Hamilton

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