Grafton Public Library

Book Review: The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

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I recently came across an oldie on my bookshelf, The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard, and read a few basic reviews.  They were for the most part glowing, and the book was the 1980 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.  Shirley Hazzard is an Australian-born writer of both fiction and non-fiction know for her distinct style of prose.  The writing is beautiful, almost reminiscent of an earlier period when phrasing was often more lyrical, almost poetic.  Using exquisite language, with complex construction and nuance, she does have a way of capturing a character’s thoughts, a complex situation, or a point of view which I found unique and clever.

The Transit of Venus is a love story, albeit a gloomy version of the genre.  It is the story of two orphaned Australian girls who, upon entering adulthood post WWII, escape to England away from the overbearing, narcissistic female relative who has begrudgingly raised them.  What follows charts the course of their and loves and losses over the next 30 years.  Caro is a dynamic, glamorous soul with accompanying drama.  Introverted Grace settles into a more conventional situation.  Sprinkled throughout are a series of wholly unappealing lovers and husbands.

The plot is rather shallow, because it takes a back seat to the prose, and the lack of weight and clarity left me unsatisfied. The characters were an unhappy, brooding, unfaithful and unappealing lot.  Their portraits obtuse, I found myself not caring about them. The saga launches ahead in time to the 1960s and ‘70s with an introductory list of a few famous events which occurred during those decades.  But despite her obvious facility, the author doesn’t successfully evoke those times.

Her use of the language is impressive by any measure, but Ms Hazzard is an acquired taste.  I often found myself really having to concentrate to follow her.  This isn’t in itself a bad thing.  But it got in the way of me enjoying the book.  The fancy wording, delightful and insightful as it often was, did not always enhance the story.  I actually like a lot a description in a book and I don’t mind having to consult a dictionary, but it turned into a bit of a chore.  Almost self-indulgent, it was a little too clever by half.  The dialog was too elegant and cerebral to be believable.  Who talks that way?

To be fair, I did read it piecemeal, a chapter each night, so I never really got on a roll.  Perhaps with larger chunks of time devoted to it, I would have gotten into the flow of her style. It just required a little too much perseverance for a novel.  Shirley Hazzard, who passed away in 2016, is considered to be a brilliant writer and I was fascinated and impressed with her wordsmithery.  I was starting to get the hang of it in the latter stages, but admit I was impatient to finish.

I personally would not recommend this book, but I am in the minority.  Lovers of literature consider this one of their favorites.  So if that dichotomy piques your curiosity it may be worth a try.  You will know immediately in the first few pages whether or not the writing style is for you.  The story in itself isn’t very gripping or interesting.  You will find no mystery, drama, passionate romance, or twisting plot lines.  But a few pages in, if you find yourself captivated by the stylings of Shirley Hazzard, you may enjoy The Transit of Venus.

Regular print edition

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