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BOOK REVIEW:

In certain circles

The revelation of a "rediscovered" Harper Lee novel is worldwide news. A similar case involving another octogenarian author, from Australia, has generated  much less media buzz but is nevertheless a significant literary event.  During the 1960s, Elizabeth Harrower was considered one of the most talented younger Australian novelists. Her four novels were praised in Britain and in Australia, which included acclaim and friendship from two stellar Australian novelists, Christina Stead and Patrick White.  A couple of years ago, an Australian publisher decided to reissue the four novels and contacted the writer about her fifth book, which she finished in 1971 but never published.

This novel, like most of Harrower’s writing, takes place in a wealthy neighborhood of Sydney, over the course of about 25 years.  The central characters are two brother-sister pairs from different backgrounds whose lives intersect in various ways.

Much of the story is seen from the perspective of Zoe Howard, who is 17 at the outset, and is charming, attractive, and intelligent from a well-to-do family.  Zoe's beloved brother, Russell, has recently returned from a war, probably World War II, and time in a POW camp.  He is engaged to Lily, who lives down the road. He has recently befriended Stephen Quayle, a young man he met on a train, and has asked him to be his best man. Stephen and his 15-year-old sister, Anna, are invited to meet the family.

The Quayles grew up in decidedly unglamorous Parramatta after their parents died in a car crash   Left penniless, they were taken in by a well-meaning uncle whose wife is mentally unstable. Stephen is a taciturn young man, prone to depression, and brutally honest in his views of others.  Zoe, whose family and friends treat her like a princess, has led a rather sheltered life despite her outward sophistication. She is both fascinated and repelled by Stephen's personality. Meanwhile, Zoe becomes friends with Anna, and Anna develops a crush on kind, compassionate Russell.

Soon enough, all these budding relationships are interrupted as Russell marries Lily and they move to England to finish their graduate degrees. Stephen's sales job, which he despises like almost everything else in his life, takes him to Melbourne. A couple of years later Zoe is off to Paris, where her photography makes her a minor celebrity, and she becomes involved in a serious relationship with a much older film director. Anna, left behind and still dreaming about Russell, reluctantly marries a kind and rich friend of the Howards whom she likes and admires but cannot love.

About five years later, Zoe is called back to Sydney when her mother dies suddenly.  Russell and Lily, now the parents of twins, have already returned home, and Russell has disappointed Lily by giving up sociology to become a sort of journalist/social worker.  Anna is a wealthy young widow, dating a succession of men who will never eclipse Russell in her heart, and Stephen is also back in Sydney--a little more mature, but still basically the same unhappy person he's always been. As Zoe deals with the shock of losing her mother, she realizes that Stephen is the love of her life.  Wanting to devote her life to making him happy, she cancels her trip back to Paris and settles with him on the family property left to her by her mother. She will not have children or a career outside the home, since Stephen would not want to share her with anyone and is not supportive of her interests in photography and cinema.

At this point, the story takes another leap in time; everyone is now in their 40s, still living the same lives they chose 15 years earlier--until a couple of shocking events occur to stir things up.

The use of "circles" in the book's title is appropriate, since Harrower's world is often insular and affects the decisions and fate of her characters, very similar to the novels of Henry James, who was certainly an influence.  We get hints of Australia's natural beauty and its status as a wonderful place to grow up--but also a place you have to leave (at least for awhile) if you aspire to achieve something academically or artistically.   Harrower's five beautifully written novels, including this long-lost gem, are definitely worth exploring.

Highly recommended for book clubs.

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