In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020)

I first read and reviewed this novel at the beginning of 2015.

‘As she spoke, she had an impression of something not pleasant happening to her, something irreversible and magical and inevitable.’

The first part of the novel opens just after the end of World War II, in Sydney, where the Howards live in their house on the north side of Sydney Harbour. Mr and Mrs Howard are both biologists, and ‘Mrs Howard was a useful example of a woman who combined a successful career with a happy home life. Whenever such a phenomenon needed illustration, journalists and producers were as likely to think of Alice Howard as anyone in town.’

Their son Russell has returned home in one piece after a period as a prisoner of war. Their 17 year old daughter, Zoe, was considered by family and friends to be remarkable. Perhaps she is: Zoe is an excellent student, captain of the school, editor of the school paper, a competent sailor and photographer who can handle a car better than her father.

‘To live without the interest or attention of other people, without making an impression: in her mind, Zoe groped to imagine such a state.’

Through the Howards, we also meet another brother and sister, Stephen and Anna Quayle. Stephen and Anna have been orphaned, and live in Parramatta with an uncle and his seriously disturbed wife. The uncle is preoccupied with his wife and doesn’t have much attention left for Stephen and Anna. Stephen, who intrigues Zoe, works as a salesman and Anna will be a clerk. Zoe is destined for Paris, to study film or photography. Russell will marry the well-educated Lily, and will open his own publishing company. Such a contrast between the lives of, and opportunities for, these four young people.

‘You can’t explain anything to a rich, lucky person. They don’t know.’

The second part of the novel opens eight years later, when the death of Alice Howard brings Zoe home from Europe. Zoe is now a successful photographer, in a relationship with a film director, with a career ahead of her. But once she meets Stephen again, she decides to marry him and remain in Sydney. Anna is widowed: her husband David, a musician, died less than two years after they married. Russell and Lily married, as expected, and have twin daughters.

‘Be satisfied. Be satisfied. This is what you wanted. This is what you’ve got.’

By the late 1960s, in the final part of the novel, Zoe is forty. She has devoted herself to trying to make Stephen happy. Anna has found success making pottery, while Lily has sacrificed her academic career for her daughters. None of these younger women has had the same success that Alice Howard had in combining a career and marriage.

‘He shook his head. Zoe checked an impulse to speak. Once so impulsive, she was now very skilled at checking impulses.’

The relationships in this novel – between individuals, between those with power and those without can be both straightforward (when individuals have a clear idea about what they want) and complex (when individuals make choices without fully appreciating the consequences). And even clarity about the future can be obscured when an individual world view is based in ignorant naivety. Can any of the younger generation move beyond the barriers of class and power, beyond the expectations of others to find their own place in the world?

In this novel (and in fact) Australia is not as egalitarian as it pretends to be. And that is an uncomfortable truth which I’d like to ignore, but can’t. I enjoyed the way Ms Harrower constructed this story, and I wondered why the novel was withdrawn from publication after it was completed in 1971. In some ways, I think Australia has become even less egalitarian since then. I’ll be adding Ms Harrower’s other novels to my reading list.

‘It occurred to her that there might be nothing braver in the world than to allow yourself to be understood.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith