Monday, April 04, 2011

The Transit of Venus

I was not entirely sure what to make of Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 novel The Transit of Venus while I was reading it, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it now. I enjoyed the book very much in the way that I enjoy reading slow, demanding books occasionally, and part of that enjoyment comes from the fact that I don’t mind feeling a little bit at sea. It’s not so much the complex language that made me feel that way, although the language certainly is dense. It’s that it took me a while to figure out the mood and the focus of the book, and I’m still figuring it out.

As I read through the first half or so of the book, I kept wondering exactly where Hazzard was taking the story. In the beginning, we learn about two sisters who grew up in Australia and are now living in England. One of the sisters, Grace, is engaged to be married. She is a fairly conventional young woman who is happy to follow the traditional path of marriage and motherhood. The other, Caro, is more complicated, not gifted with Grade’s ability to please others without effort. She is independent and a little prickly. It is clear from the beginning that her life will be more difficult.

So I thought it would be a novel about the relationship of these two sisters and how Grace’s marriage affects it — which is partly what the book is about, but it’s not really the main point. Then we come to a flashback about the sisters’ childhood in Australia growing up with their emotionally manipulative and truly awful half-sister, Dora. I thought then that the book would move back and forth regularly between the past and the present, showing how the one created the other. But that’s not really what happens, either.

Instead, the book expands outward from its opening scenes, moving forward through many years to cover long stretches of the main characters’ lives. And it also shifts from character to character, moving away from the two sisters now and then to tell other stories. It expands outward in terms of place as well; there are sections in New York and in South America, as well as the flashbacks to Australia.

Ultimately, I think, the book is about relationships and the various ways they develop, mostly, unfortunately, in sad ways. Grace’s relationship with her husband, Christian Thrale, ends up complicated. Caro marries happily, but … something goes wrong there too, something entirely different from what happens to Grace. Ted Tice, a character introduced to the two sisters early on, spends his whole life longing for Caro, who is indifferent to him. And then there is Paul Ivory. He is engaged to be married to a neighborhood woman, but he and Caro begin an affair, one that reveals Caro’s depths and Paul’s harshness.

All this sounds a little soap opera-ish, and if I were to give away the entire plot, it would sound even more so. But that’s not the way the book feels. Instead, Hazzard captures the experiences and emotions of her characters with depth and subtlety. One of the most memorable sections for me is when Caro is living alone in London working as a lowly secretary to a horrible, sexist, stingy man. She is lonely and has no money. When Dora is suffering and needs help — Dora, the half-sister who was supposed to raise her and failed utterly at it — Caro raises money and sets out to help her even though it’s a huge sacrifice. Christian Thrale, Grace’s husband, doesn’t lift a finger to help, even though he has the means to do so. The depths of Caro’s isolation seem bottomless. Her life does improve, but it’s hard as a reader to forget just how bad things once were. It makes sense not to trust happiness in this book.

I’ve been discussing the book with other Slaves of Golconda readers over at the discussion boards, and the consensus seems to be that it would richly reward a rereading. There are a couple crucial moments where the narrative flashes forward, and without catching those moments, the reader might be lost at the end. But I hear there are other instances of foreshadowing that I didn’t catch the first time around that would be great to explore on a reread.

If you would like to read more about the book, there are lots of posts on it over at the Slaves site. It’s an excellent book for a group discussion!

2 comments:

Stefanie said...

Christian really made me angry especially in the section of the book you describe. What a smug, penny-pinching little man he turned out to be.

Dorothy W. said...

Christian was awful, and Mr. Leadbetter was even worse. Hazzard does miserliness and misery pretty well!