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The Transit of Venus Paperback – September 1, 1990
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From Publishers Weekly
National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Hazzard here tells of two sisters, Grace and Caroline Bell. Born in Australia and orphaned at an early age, the two make their way to England. There Grace opts for marriage and its securities; Caroline reaches for more and loves not always wisely but well. "A strong, deep, poetic, vibrant novel," lauded PW.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
About the Author
Born in Australia, Shirley Hazzard traveled the world during her early years, a result of her parents' diplomatic postings. In 1947, at the age of 16, she was engaged by British intelligence to monitor the civil war in China. In 1963, she married the writer Francis Steegmuller, who died in 1994. She has written several novels, two of which were National Book Award Finalists: The Bay of Noon (1971) and The Transit of Venus (1981, available from Penguin). She is also the author of two collections of short stories, and several works of nonfiction including the memoir Greene on Capri. Hazzard's most recent work, The Great Fire, won of the 2003 National Book Award for Fiction and the Miles Franklin Award. She died in 2016.
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I agree with others that the dialogue is cryptic and weighed down by too many obscure literary allusions. Whole conversations are conducted through metaphorical references to poetry or antiquity. It seemed overwritten and pretentious at times. A good editor should have reined that in. My bigger disappointment was with the passivity of the primary character, Caroline. I realize that she's our Venus stand-in, buffeted by love, but she was hard to get to know. Orphaned, adrift and with few friends, she only sparks when a man enters or re-enters her life. In many scenes, she's monosyllabic, uttering "Yes" or "No" as other characters - especially the men - expound at length. To the extent the author meant this as a critique of power relations between the sexes, it makes sense. Caroline's lack of agency reminded me of some of Edith Wharton's women who are trapped or defeated by forces beyond their control. Also like Wharton, Hazzard writes of her characters with detachment, which makes them hard to warm up to.
Among the things I enjoyed about "Transit of Venus" was its careful plotting. It covers three decades in the lives of multiple characters, which includes some lulls in action (like real life), but it heads toward a dramatic conclusion. Ironies abound and there is some sharp humor, including withering depictions of bosses and bureaucrats. In the end what stayed with me was its broad canvas of lives lived, love won and lost, the complicated trajectories of people's journeys. Its examination of relationships, whether exploitive, unrequited, ephemeral or enduring, whether parent-child, sibling or sexual, is rich and thought-provoking. It explores goodness and venality, love and death, lust, abandonment, idealism, deception, regret, infidelity and fate. So despite stylistic flaws, "The Transit of Venus" left me with much to ponder.
The style is at once brilliant and overstuffed, requiring discipline not to skip sentences because Hazzard has buried amazingly bright nuggets throughout. Her characterization and scene-setting are both first rate, with a faint whiff of social satire that permeates the book, which is at once serious drama and yet contains touches of drawing-room comedy. She understands social transactions and can reduce a person's thoughts/behavior to a bitingly fresh line or two. Dora is a fine example of a character that hovers between caricature and characterization. A great line (of which there are countless): "Deep trouble was having its way with Dora." This is inserted in a thick paragraph that contains other smart lines, but then Hazzard overwrites and dilutes her own humorous, tart analysis.
The book seems to aspire toward being a great epic story, but its successful narrative elements are intimate. This inherent dichotomy leaves me unsure of how to rate the success of the author's endeavor. Did she plan a big book and miss or a small book and over-expand it? I suspect a contemporary editor would have pared this book closer to its fine, honest bones, allowing Hazzard's piercing insights to shine more brightly.
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Her books are so well plotted, the descriptions of the settings brilliant and her insights...Read more