Books

Elizabeth Harrower
In Certain Circles

Completed four years after Elizabeth Harrower’s most well-known title, The Watch Tower, but never before published, In Certain Circles is a novel of astonishing psychological insight exploring the darker aspects of human attraction. 

Our central protagonist, Zoe, is naïve but like other Harrower characters, well read and observant, if impressionable. Zoe’s brother, Russell, introduces her to Stephen and his sister, Anna, orphans, whose lives are markedly different to their privileged existences; to Zoe, Stephen presents “an interesting case”. There is an immediate attraction between the two, although it takes them years to finally commit. Anna and Russell experience similar feelings, which are never acted on. 

Zoe and Stephen’s relationship is initially blissful, but divisions emerge. Stephen, a salesman, puts himself through university, studying at night. Still, he never achieves any ease with himself. Zoe accommodates his insecurities, but resents him for the adjustment; Stephen goes into business with Russell to please Zoe and blames her for his consequent unhappiness. We need love, Harrower suggests, as flawed as we are at giving and receiving it.

Her great strength as a writer is the frequency with which she captures human behaviour in a few deft words. Anna is “tranquil as a saucer of cream”, and when Zoe parts from Stephen, “An invisible hand dragged a steel rake through her body”. Harrower is concerned more with emotional depth than surface details.

Despite the 40-year delay in publication, Harrower’s subject is timeless: the intentional and unintentional damage we inflict on those we love. As characters plot and subtly manipulate, the book hovers on the edge of danger and concludes with an almost tragic event. We’re never quite sure whether it is an innocent mistake by Anna, but if calculated, it apparently succeeds, reflecting the curious truth that underlies the book, captured best in Zoe’s remark, “Do you think if you knew anyone well enough you’d come on doors marked – cruel things?” 

In Certain Circles, and the reissue of Harrower’s back catalogue, will ensure this major Australian writer obtains the recognition she deserves. The irreversible loss, however, is that Harrower lacked sufficient support at the time she was writing, which deprived us of more of her work.  HT

Text, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 26, 2014 as "Elizabeth Harrower, In Certain Circles". Subscribe here.