By Vita Forest
I first read The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard a few years ago. I had heard of it before then, but really became intrigued when the entire panel of The Book Club on the ABC raved about it. Usually there is some dissent among those opinionated readers, but not this time. They all thought is was brilliant.
It was quite an experience that first read, and subsequent readings haven’t diminished the power of this book. Even knowing the ending – possibly even because I know what is going to happen.
Hazzard writes about a pair of Australian sisters, Caro and Grace Bell, who have moved to England, and follows them for a period of about thirty years. The novel is about love – the characters fall and in and out of it, attraction holds them enthralled, circling helplessly in another’s orbit, before they are ruthlessly cast aside to spin away until they are caught up in some other gravitational pull. This is true of everyone except Ted Tice. He is a young scientist who meets Caro at the beginning of the book and holds her steady at the centre of his affections, even when separated by huge emotional and physical distances. Despite the camaraderie that grows between them, his love is unrequited. Caro of course, is attracted to the amoral, selfish and entirely charismatic Paul Ivory, an up-and-coming playwright.
The characters’ fortunes rise and fall, often in direct contrast to each other. As if there cannot be triumph without failure, as if there cannot be love without heartbreak, as if there can be no happiness without grief. The novel is about power and dominance, the shift of control in relationships.
To continue the planetary metaphors, crucial events are eclipsed by flashier, but ultimately more trivial occurrences, or are briefly glimpsed but remain obscured until years later when they are suddenly illuminated again. Hazzard casually forewarns us of the fate of some of the key characters, in sentences as brief and clinical as news bulletins. This means that readers can easily miss this crucial information. By employing this technique, Hazzard manages to make the ending both transcendentally optimistic, or deeply tragic. It all depends on how you read the book.
The novel is also full of sly humour and exquisite, impressionistic descriptions. Each word is beautifully placed, even minor characters are given spark and wit. There are some truly revolting characters, Dora, the half-sister of Caro and Grace, with her endless catastrophes and parasitic sense of entitlement, immediately comes to mind.
In a lot of ways it is a very brutal book. Hazzard is not kind to her characters. No-one is spared disappointments and heartaches. I suppose that is her message.
P.S. When I finished, I did have to return to a bit of Melina Marchetta, to get back a sense of redemption and hope…