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The Transit of Venus Paperback – September 1, 1990
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
“I cannot think of a more elegant writer. To me she personifies the word exquisite. . . . It’s the inner landscapes, the kind of minute, almost inevitable gestures and impulses that comprise human interaction that she’s just so brilliant at registering, and in this sense I think she’s truly the heir to Henry James. She’s just such a treat.” —Emily Eakin, The New York Times Book Review (podcast)
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She used the third-person omniscient point-of-view to an alarming extreme. There are few characters whose thoughts we are not privy to. But she pulls back in how closely she elucidates these thoughts. Although this novel is primarily about women and their affairs, there is nothing remotely like a sex scene in here, and emotions are seldom explicitly explored. Instead, she hints at the inner lives--of women, primarily--by means of description and dialogue.
Something else she does extensively is something I can't recall in other novels I've read. She frequently interposes what her characters MIGHT have said (had they been more frank or spontaneous, presumably).
This is not a quick or easy read, but her sentences, not long and syntactically complicated, as you might guess from a writer labeled as "difficult" can be wonderful little gems of insight.
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.
Top international reviews
Can't understand why Shirley Hazzard isn't as celebrated in the UK as Shields, Atwood and others.
The two sisters at the centre of the story are Australian, or so we are told, because I got no sense of them as outsiders in post-war Britain. Every time their Australian-ness was mentioned, it brought me up short because I'd forgotten all about it. Hazzard seems to have led a nomadic life, living in many continents, and maybe she has lost all notion of what makes individual nations unique, which might explain why British characters use so many American idioms -- surely not common in the 1950s.
When I got to the baffling ending, I realised that, at some point, I was going to have to read it again. I'm afraid my heart sank rather at the prospect. It will not be soon.
The Transit of Venus is a novel about affairs of the heart. Many of them illicit; or at least, outside matrimony. Characters are only really alive when the heart is engaged and pumping. It reminded me a lot of Rosamond Lehman’s the Echoing Grove – the theme of two sisters, one rebellious, the other more willing to compromise to the dictates of domesticity and the romantic lyrical nature of the novel’s sensibility. Lehman though did a much better job of examining the backstage realms of domesticity without belittling it as Hazard often does. Hazard isn’t interested in her domesticated female until she’s contemplating adultery. She isn’t really interested in anyone unless they’re about to step out into a storm.
Also, stylistically this novel is a nightmare for the first fifty pages. So tangled and cryptic are her sentences that you have to read each one twice – which would be fine if it was worth the effort, but too often it isn’t. It reminded me of both late Henry James and Elizabeth Bowen –the trick-or-treat facemasking of the opaque overly wrought prose. The first fifty or so pages are virtually unreadable. Until, it appears, Hazard begins to enjoy her characters and her story and relaxes. As I said there’s much to admire in the writing itself but as a novel there was too much that jarred for me – her attempts to politicise the text for example when one of her triumphs is to transcend era: her novels always have an encompassing timeless drift - to truly take it to my heart.