Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower published several well received novels in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Her much anticipated fifth novel, In Certain Circles, was set to be published in 1971 when Harrower abruptly changed her mind and withheld it from publication. She essentially retired from writing shortly afterward. In 2014, Text Publishing was able to get Harrower to agree to the publication of In Certain Circles, a novel of post-war Australia that focuses on social class, trauma, and their impact on friendships and romantic relationships. Harrower delves into the psyches of some damaged and fragile people from their youth to middle age and delivers a deep, detailed story full of frustrated dreams, deception, and self-discovery.
The Howard family of Sydney are wealthy and “well known identities”. Mr. and Mrs. Howard are respected academics; son Russell is a veteran and former POW who is known for his genial and generous disposition; and 17-year-old Zoe is beautiful, popular, self-absorbed, and an accomplished photographer who seems to have the world by the tail. When Russell introduces siblings Anna and Stephen Quayle to his family, Zoe’s calm and assurance are shaken, and this phenomenon has a rippling effect over the years and across the Howard family. The Quayles, unlike the Howards, are poor. Their parents died many years ago, leaving Stephen and Anna with an aunt and uncle whose mental instability has damaged both of them. Stephen is now an intelligent, surly salesman who longed to become a scientist; teenaged Anna simply longs for a life of her own, away from the source of her anguish, maybe with love. Russell “adopted” the Quayles, seeing great potential in them and hoping that his family’s support could help them overcome their past. Yet, over the next twenty years, the Quayles have an almost erosive effect on the Howards, dulling some of what made them shine, exposing unexpected weaknesses, and changing Zoe from a confident young woman who never hesitated to express her opinion into an insecure woman, adept at lying and subterfuge.
Harrower’s strengths lie in her ability to 1) track and expose sources of psychological trauma and their resulting behaviors, 2) create realistic characters whose evolution over time is both disturbing and riveting, and 3) write about it all with such brilliance. Issues of social class are at the forefront of this novel, particularly the Howard family’s inability to have any true understanding of poverty and the life of “have-nots.” In her diary, Anna writes,
You can’t explain anything to a rich, lucky person. They don’t know. They talk about ‘cases’ and people who have ‘problems’. They read a lot about them, but don’t know.
But Harrower is at her best when she is dealing with psychology and the “mind games” people can play with one another. In her youth, Zoe never hesitates to state her opinions to anyone, and she thinks that to love someone more than you are loved in return shows “little character.” In her adulthood, after years of an unhappy marriage that she characterizes as being … like spies working for hostile governments, she thinks,
… the mask might sometimes be superior to what lay beneath….
The parent/child relationship falls under Harrower’s laser-like scrutiny, too. Zoe’s mother tries to tell her not to invest so much of herself in “individuals” but to invest in herself, in her own interests, advice that Zoe does not follow. In fact, she resents her parents’ interest in and support of her activities and compares them to voyeurs. Their prospective delight intruded on her sense of herself as a private person.
Later, Zoe’s controlling sister-in-law Lily tries to prevent her own children moving away to pursue their dreams abroad, and Zoe reflects,
The difference between being idolized and plagued can be very small.
One of the themes that recurs in this novel has to do with reconciling the dreams of one’s youth with the realities of one’s adulthood. Certainly, there is a difference between choosing to leave a dream behind or outgrowing it and not being given the opportunity to pursue a long desired dream. Stephen’s lack of opportunity to pursue his dream fuels his anger and resentment. Zoe’s decision to give up photography and film-making is freely made; while not understood by those around her, this choice causes Zoe no anguish. Interestingly, when I was reading about Elizabeth Harrower in preparation for this review, I learned that, much like Zoe, she walked away from her art in the wake of her mother’s death and when she was at the top of her game, and she was constantly asked when she would return to writing, even though she made it clear she had no interest in it any more. It’s funny how our dreams seem to have an impact on others’ perception of us, and that walking away from artistic creativity in particular really bothers and disappoints others. If we leave an office job to go back to school or retire to travel, that’s wonderful. But artists aren’t allowed to stop being artists.
I’m not sure I have done this novel justice in this review. There are so many interesting characters and topics that one could discuss in In Certain Circles. I’ll have to add Elizabeth Harrower to my list of authors to read more of, and I’ll try not to be disappointed when there are no more to read because Harrower doesn’t write novels any more.