I have a another blog in which I collect interesting quotes from various sources. If I were to post quotes from The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazard, I would have to include the entire novel. Never have I read a book before where every sentence has been crafted to perfection – even simple ones like “By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation”, which beyond its own elegance of construction, paints a vivid picture of the storm with which the novel starts. “Caro’s crossed bare legs were slipping off one another in a confluence of sweat and skin lotion and the dankness created by the storm” – you can almost feel the sweat and skin lotion between your legs.
The novel’s narrative style is overwhelming at first, you have to slow down considerably to understand and savour the full potential of each sentence. The tempestuous beginning sets the stage for a full-flown romantic drama, which ebbs and wanes throughout, following the life of the protagonist – Caroline Bell, called Caro. Caro is perhaps an Australian abbreviation, for as far as I know, Caroline would be shortened to Carol. The urban dictionary defines Caro as “someone who behaves and dresses in a way intended to attract a lot of sexual interest from a man but who refuses to have sex with him” and in a way, Caro’s interactions with Ted Tice could be construed as being indicative of the word, although there is not as much sexual tension as romantic love – but are the two different ?
Once you get used to the narrative style, the story takes precedence over narration. The novel traces the life and evolution of the two sisters – Caroline and Grace – more of Caroline than Grace. The characters evolve and morph such that the picture of each of them changes into something completely different. The intellectual and cold Caro becomes an emotional cling-on in the end, while the domesticated, drab Grace, burns with the hidden passion of unrequited extramarital love. Such inconsistencies are not restricted to the main characters. Ted Tice, a conscientious gentleman, who does not disclose the damaging secret of his rival Paul Ivory, even when he knows that it would bring Caro to him – ends don’t justify the means – has no qualms about discarding his loving wife and perfect children of 20 years, to get back with the woman who had consistently rejected him in favour of a cad. Paul Ivory himself, Caro’s apparently heartless lover, who has, as we learn later, no regrets of having killed his gay paramour in the past, confesses his “sins”to Caro, in an unexpected show of humanness brought about by his son’s leukaemia. Such is life, as in the author’s words, “At first, there is something you expect of life. Later there is what life expects of you. By the time you realise these are the same, it can be too late for expectations”.
The more forceful characters are the side-kicks. Dora, the half-sister caretaker of the orphaned Caro and Grace, with her victim attitude and emotional blackmail of the sisters, is more realistic than either Caro or Grace. “Dora sat on a corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned a task so she could resent it” – one brilliant sentence describes Dora in total. In all her complaints, Dora has no illusions of superiority, like Caro does, nor does she bask in the introverted melodrama of forbidden amor, like Grace. Tertia, Paul Ivory’s regal wife, is perhaps the least developed, but most powerful character of the lot. In her own understated way, she is everything that Paul is not – headstrong, honest and arrogant, with reason to be, unlike Caro and Paul, who revel in their intellectual superiority to others, but being intellectual is clearly different from being intelligent.
Caro’s appearance of being a rebel/feminist is misleading. Having a steamy affair with an unscrupulous married man is not being a rebel, although she (or perhaps the author?) seems to believe so, in what the reader perceives as smug attitude. Valda Fenchurch, Caro’s colleague, who refuses to make tea for her male counterparts, is the archetypical feminist, and Caro merely hides behind Valda’s rebellion to show herself as being modern. Infact, it is pitiful that Caro uses Valda’s rebellion as an excuse to quit, but she quits only with the security of having an American millionaire to marry. Pathetic.
Christian Thrale, the narcissistic, vaguely bombastic ministry employee husband of Grace, is also more relatable than Grace herself, even in his short-lived affair with his secretary. There are a few brilliant strokes in the interactions between husband and wife, such as the time that Grace burns with love for her son’s doctor, her husband jubilantly declares that he “has been given Africa” – the absurdity is almost comic. Even Adam Vail, the American millionaire husband of Caro, is sensible and heart-warming than the two female leads.
At first read, there are some confusing plot points – earlier in the novel, the author claims that Ted was to eventually kill himself many years later, but the novel seems to end with he and Caro getting together – so was this a detail that the author missed? Perhaps not. Through rather convoluted logic, it is understood that Caro dies when the plane bearing her to Rome to unite with Ted crashes, and Ted consequently kills himself in grief. Mind you, none of this is described as such anywhere, and the reader merely infers from random sentences here and there.
It seems obvious that Venus being associated with love, the book’s title refers to the path taken by love and loved ones over a lifetime. However, it seems to me that the title refers to the astronomer who traveled to India to see the transit of the planet across the sun, but missed it because of bad weather – an anecdote by Ted Tice somewhere early on in the novel. Perhaps the title refers to our quest for love, which is often thwarted by reasons beyond human control.
A wonderful and thought-provoking book.