Harrower casts a searching eye over the postwar Australian middle class through Sydney North Shore socialites, the Howard family, and their reaction to impoverished orphans Anna and Stephen Quayle. The differences between how life is approached, lived and processed by the socially accomplished Howard children, Russell and Zoe, versus the orphans is a major theme throughout the book. Anna and Stephen are emotionally damaged after the death of their parents and years spent living with an unstable Aunt (and her caretaker husband) whose mental illness slowly spreads taking over the household and everyone in it. The Quayle siblings wrestle to overcome the repercussions of their disturbed childhood in different ways, but undeniable damage has been done. The Howard family outwardly appear accomplished, educated and emotionally balanced yet their middle class status is unable to provide protection against corrosion of the mind or personality.
Zoe is young, full of life and confidence in herself. She has only ever know praise and privilege.
“She had discovered this high-handed, high-spirited manner of seeming tremendously well pleased with herself.”
When she encounters Stephen’s disdain and criticism of all that she stands for, Zoe is shocked yet attracted to him. She finds herself strangely drawn to this man who fails to be flattered by her charms, who doesn’t hold her aloft in a glittering light simply because she exists.
“Something in him took her from the pink marshmallow castle of her life to a high cliff over the ocean in the real world.”
Zoe, full of her own confidence, views Stephen as a challenge and is certain that her love can heal his wounds. That she can save him. That her love can soothe the anger, the vitriolic outbursts, the sullen silences, and the extended emotional withdrawal that Stephen exhibits. Zoe succeeds in seducing Stephen but after twenty years of marriage she discovers that she is but a shell of her former self, finds herself unrecognisable and that her marriage is mirage:
“I have the impression that I died two or three years ago, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Russell returns from the being a prisoner of war a changed young man and dedicates himself to helping others less fortunate than himself. It is Russell who introduces Stephen and Anna to the Howard family and draws them into the household and their lives. Despite being engaged to Lisa, a high spirited woman from their wealthy social circle, Russell feels an attraction for Anna that he has not experienced with other women. A quiet tension simmers between the two of them, over years and decades, until it erupts with devastating consequences.
Anna wrestles with her unrequited love for Russell but does not give in to it. Instead she is determined to make her own way in the world, to gain her freedom through work. Regardless of the pittance she is paid, Anna celebrates her independence and escape from her Aunt’s madness through small moments encountered in the everyday with her co-workers and time spent alone on weekends.
“She lay with her face down, her forehead and cheeks and bare arms pricked by the short mown grass. She breathed the fresh earth odours and they fed her. She lay so heavily relaxed and weary that she seemed to sink and grow into the comfortable ground. And as though it were a person, she began to feel fond of the country, from being so close to it.”
In Certain Circles was written in the 1971 but withdrawn at the last moment by Harrower, and never published. It’s final publication proves that Harrower’s portrayal of relationships and attitudes of the day are as relevant now as they were then. The story and its characters have been able to stand the test of time, which is no small feat. This is a masterfully written book that reflects the vastly different perspectives between the lower and middle classes and how hardship is understood and dealt with. Another theme running through the book is how women are placed within society, their roles at work and within the home, and the expectations around marriage and domesticity.
“He should be a professional humorist – asking me what I’m going to do for an occupation. There’s only you, you, you – as the song says. And us, and our harbourside estate, and our cats, and that room full of stuff to be translated, and your printery, and our public life – provided by Russell, and our private life – provided by us…”
The pace is slow and the plot focuses around the internal working of the characters. It is the psychological tension that propels the narrative forward, and it is beautifully handled by Harrower. She manages to deftly present opposing perspectives and insights into the human psyche through her flawed characters. She has created characters that resonate through their foibles. I found myself at times anxious and frustrated with both Zoe and Anna, wanting them to move forward, to take control or action instead of being so passive. I wanted to shout at them and shake them for some of their behaviour. Stephen was both an annoying martyr that I loathed and someone I felt infinitely sorry for. It’s that kind of book. It will bring your emotions to the surface.
Elizabeth Harrower is the author of The Watch Tower (Text Publishing 2012) and Down in the City (Text Publishing 2013) both of which also explore themes of social class, set against a Sydney backdrop.