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!

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

5 responses to “The Transit of Venus

  1. I’ve read your and Danielle’s review, and took a peak at the Slaves blog, and this sounds like a very complex narrative to follow. I was talking to a friend about these types of books (she is a writer) and we wondered at what point a book like this frustrates the reader too much. I’ll be interested to see what the others think as well.

  2. Oh I’m heading over there to have a look. I checked it yesterday but no one had posted yet. I’m glad to hear more about this from you. I got the book late and haven’t finished yet.

  3. I know exactly what you mean about not being sure where the book was going. I often felt that! And Christian turned out to be a nasty piece of work. I also wondered about the character of Grace. She seemed the least developed of the main protagonists, someone who had let herself slide into a cliche that she couldn’t seem to get out of. I also felt that the plot was soap opera-ish if you described it, and that the portentous language sometimes seemed too heavy for the relationships it describes. But, on the whole, I did enjoy it and was really glad we picked it.

  4. Debby — I think this book walked the line between being interestingly complex and too difficult to enjoy for some of the other readers, although just about everyone did like it. It stayed satisfying to me, but that is an interesting question, and one that each reader has to decide on her own. It always has a lot to do with mood and energy level, I think.

    Lilian — I’m glad you could post on the book eventually — it was interesting to read your take.

    Litlove — yes, Grace was left fairly undefined, with the exception of that section where she falls in love with that one guy … whose name I forget … yes, I suppose, not terribly memorable! Hazzard could have done more with her, but then, there was so much else she was already doing. Perhaps she took on a bit much?

  5. I felt very adrift while reading this book as well. I had no problem getting into the story and it was strangely compelling, but once she started focusing on other characters (particularly after Caro married the American) I sort of lost the thread and wondered how she would possibly wrap it all up! I think I would have gotten frustrated on my own reading this, but in the end I’ve found that I liked it very much—once I sorted things out that is. It would be interesting reading it again knowing the twist and being able to concentrate on the stories subtleties.

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