One can assume the characters in Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus have guiding principles in their lives, a moral framework by which to behave. After all, they lead exemplary outward lives for the most part. However, when Venus transits between them and their principles, when love gets in the way, everything turns to heartache and loss. For multiple characters, thoughts run toward suicide.
Some of what follows will make the reader think this is a dreary or depressing book, because people do suffer disappointment and yearning, sometimes for many years. But the experience of reading The Transit of Venus will redeem you; the author’s rich prose concoction not only intoxicates on an aesthetic level, but also stimulates reflection on the vagaries of human relationships.
This novel lives in several thematic neighborhoods. One thought Ms. Hazzard repetitively focuses on is the insurmountable gap between what people feel and what they say. She expresses this chasm in chopped-up, incomplete conversational sentences, in which trite and over-worn phrases are thought of, and not always even spoken. People speak or think in these fragments and the effect is extraordinary and blunting. People hide their emotions from everyone except themselves. Several times, while the author was carrying this off, I wanted to yell at the character, “Get real for once! Just say what’s on your mind.”
Morality is another lynchpin here. And by morality I mean scale which measures what people do or don’t do for each other – the balance of their motivation: does it tilt toward themselves or toward others? This book is replete with selfishness, particularly on the part of the male characters. Characters keep a running score of the ebb and flow of personal power in relationships (or Ms. Hazzard does it for them), and the tides of these skirmishes shift back and forth in single conversations. (That feature reminded me of Henry James, except it has a clear narrative flow.)
A tall, lovely woman named Caroline (“Caro”) Bell lives at the center of this narrative, and is thoroughly buffeted by its events. Her sister Grace is lovely too, with a strong resemblance to Caro, albeit more lightly complected. Because of a fatal accident on a Sydney Harbor ferry in which they lose both parents, the sisters grow up with a relation named Dora, who is stunningly selfish and self-dramatizing – always working for advantage through a combination of brow-beating and playing the martyr. The girls reach adulthood in Great Britain with grave misgivings about life and people, and barely have the wherewithal to support each other. The inclination is there, but the training, or custom, is not.
Enter the men: Paul Ivory is a handsome, fashionable playwright, at ease with others either singly or in large groups. It isn’t long before Caro falls in love with him. Ted Tice, an astronomer, falls in love with Caro at about the same time. Christian Thrale, son of a stuffy, distinguished scientist, opts for Grace early on, considering Caro a bit too rich for his blood. Relationships come and go – or let’s say the assignations are there for the plucking – and the men generally skirt around the consequences, playing havoc with the female populace. Caro’s Paul marries into nobility and money, but Caro eventually finds an American philanthropist, happiness and marriage, in New York. Quite near the end of the book, the reason for the continual and unexplained emotional undercurrent – the hatred and recrimination displayed mostly by Ted and Paul – becomes clear. Suffice it to say, the final alignments are what they should be.
The stunning emotional depth of this novel – Ms. Hazzard catches with pinpoint precision the internal dialogs of love and pain and yearning – gives it its great gravitas. That, and the author’s clear moral stance. The emotions are obviously a great strength – this book plumbs even greater depths than her National Book Award-winning The Great Fire (2003) (a book I greatly treasure and honor). The diction, which ranges from stunted and halting to full, sophisticated and eloquent, provides an exact gauge for characters’ commitment or openness.
This review is running to excess. I would love to tackle main character Caro in more depth, but alas … Nevertheless, this book is another example of why I pick up books in the first place. It rewards, it impresses, it lets me live for a while with a strikingly brilliant writer and just … be taken along for the ride.