Not re­motely cheered by the so­cial or­der

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Free­man

A Few Days in the Coun­try and Other Sto­ries By El­iz­a­beth Har­rower Text Pub­lish­ing, 224pp, $29.99 (HB)

The novel is not a be­nign form, it was born from en­trap­ment and sur­vival. At first, there were men re­turn­ing from ad­ven­tures: Don Quixote, Robin­son Cru­soe, their har­row­ing es­capes and hard-won wis­doms. Sav­age pur­suers thwarted. But once women got into the game, sur­vival ac­quired a new edge. What does it mean to sur­vive a fam­ily, Jane Austen’s nov­els ask us, to sur­vive a mar­riage?

How idle a ques­tion you per­ceive this to be de­pends on how many happy mar­riages you have seen. More women have been ab­ducted into mar­riage than any form of en­trap­ment in hu­man his­tory — and yet the in­sti­tu­tion lives on with im­punity. As you read this, some­one some­where is hav­ing di­a­mond slipped on to her fin­ger as a sym­bol of eter­nal pos­ses­sion. The spooky res­o­nance of this ges­ture is surely one of the rea­sons Elena Fer­rante’s nov­els about a woman grow­ing up in Naples have such power. Read­ing those books, one gets to watch one of lit­er­a­ture’s great es­capes.

And here is why the nov­els of El­iz­a­beth Har­rower, four of them pub­lished in the 1950s and 60s, and a fifth just last year, rep­re­sent such a bit­terly com­pelling time cap­sule. One expects, on crack­ing open th­ese books, to en­joy the fizzily mean plea­sures of look­ing down one’s nose at his­tory. To bar­gain at its ta­ble with fake chips and to risk los­ing noth­ing. Set mostly in Syd­ney when it was still a town of snake-oil sales­men and Mor­ris Mi­nor im­ports, the set­ting even pre­pares you for a re­gres­sive tour of Aus­tralia af­ter the war.

The books, how­ever, refuse to re­main aloof or dis­tant. The in­ti­macy of their reg­is­ter tastes like blood in the mouth. They are mod­ern-day fairy­tales, full of chil­dren at risk and women who are im­pris­oned; the only dif­fer­ence is their pris­ons are the sub­urbs and the no­tion of sub­ur­ban de­cency. Star­tlingly, the moves of men such as Felix in The Watch Tower, Har­rower’s mas­ter­piece, have not much changed, and Laura, the woman he en­traps and tor­tures, feels as alive and rel­e­vant to­day as she would have 50 years ago. A good sur­vival nar­ra­tive, as it turns out, is eter­nal.

Har­rower stopped writ­ing th­ese books in the early 70s and al­though she has said her de­ci­sion emerged from bruised ne­glect — “I think I thought, ‘You don’t want me, I don’t want you’,’’ she told the in­ter­viewer Ra­mona Ko­val — a gen­tler ex­cuse lurks in the works them­selves. An es­cape too-of­ten re­peated ceases to be an es­cape, it be­comes a rit­ual; just look at the work of Joyce Carol Oates, so full of hunted women and the dan­ger that lurks about them, and yet so er­ratic in mak­ing us feel the ter­ror and ne­ces­sity of their es­capes. Grad­u­ally, a rit­ual loses its power to evoke the loss it usu­ally sanc­ti­fies.

And so, Har­rower has done some­thing in­ge­nious: she has con­tin­ued to work, just very slowly, in minia­ture, writ­ing the same sorts of nar­ra­tives — of chil­dren aban­doned and ne­glected, of girls and women liv­ing in the shadow of con­trol­ling men — in the short-story form. Now, some 60 years af­ter she be­gan pub­lish­ing, there is at last a book of them.

Hav­ing all of Har­rower’s work be­fore us now, the ti­tle and pre­sen­ta­tion of A Few Days in the Coun­try feels blackly, al­most sin­is­terly ironic: this is not an easy­go­ing, blithe tour of bour­geois life and its rus­ti­cated retreats. It de­picts mid­dle-class Aus­tralian mores but with an un­der­taker-ish glint. Trips to the fair, to va­ca­tion is­lands, to cafes and even to quaint, rainy old Scot­land turn out to be bogs of ut­ter bore­dom and en­snare­ment, the kind of so­journs that feel so much worse than they ac­tu­ally are be­cause of the gen­tly bul­ly­ing ways they force you to pantomime cer­tain as­sump­tions — that fun comes prepack­aged and in tightly al­lo­cated bursts, that talk­ing about one’s friends is a le­git­i­mate way to pass the time, and that while men can make mis­takes, a woman gen­er­ally ought not point it out for fear of be­ing os­tracised.

One has to think hard of a book in which so much plea­sure has been wrenched from so much pain. While the skies are over­cast here, what hap­pens on the ground is brightly lit, hi­lar­i­ously cast by lash­ings of irony and over­state­ment, forms of comedic light­ness well suited to por­tray­ing the sturm und drang of male sulks.

“When I go out to work ev­ery day, it’s as if I’m on pa­role,” a teenager says about her fa­ther in The Beau­ti­ful Cli­mate, an amus­ing, if sad, tale in which a fam­ily ren­o­vates its dearly pur­chased is­land cabin. Mostly, th­ese jaunts are a theatre for the fa­ther’s fury at the world: he is “a man who per­forms ev­ery ac­tion on their week­end retreats with his cus­tom­ary air of silent, smoul-

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