‘In Certain Circles’ by Elizabeth Harrower

‘In Certain Circles’ by Elizabeth Harrower     (2014)  –  252 pages      Grade:  B+

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Can you even imagine a writer today whose novel has already been accepted for publication withdrawing it like Elizabeth Harrower did with ‘In Certain Circles’ in 1971?  Harrower gave as her reason that the novel “seemed wrought, manipulated, not organic”.  She was her own harsh critic. The novel was finally published last year.

Of course, Harrower had already published the brilliant devastating ‘The Watch Tower’, so just about any novel would suffer in comparison.

I believe there is a clue as to why Harrower withdrew it in one of her characters’ lines from ‘In Certain Circles’.  I want to highlight these lines, because I think they are also exceptionally good advice to both writers and bloggers.

“I was interested in the work, not who was equalling whom.  You compete with the intractable, not with your fellow toilers.  Compete with the difficulty.”    

What I take away from these lines is that Elizabeth Harrower was not concerned with the popular reception of her work; her main concern was whether or not she had solved the problems she had set for herself in writing the novel in the first place.

‘In Certain Circles’ is about two sets of a brother and sister.  One set, Russell and Zoe, have parents who are movers and shakers in Sydney, Australia and live on a large estate next to the ocean.  The other set, Stephen and Anna, are orphans, their parents killed in a level-crossing accident when they were very young.  Since then they have lived with their mentally ill aunt and over-solicitous uncle.  Russell first befriended Stephen, and since then the four of them have become close friends despite the fact that Stephen and Anna are somewhat awkward socially.  We follow these four characters for about twenty years of their lives starting when they are quite young adults.

The story deals with intense emotional issues between these four young people, perhaps at the expense of the story not being well-grounded in the real world.  Much of the novel is dialogue, and it is definitely not down-to-earth dialogue.

“What I mean is – I never pity anyone I care for, so if what someone wants is pity, I can’t care for him.”   

 One can appreciate Harrower’s efforts to go deeper with the dialogue in “In Certain Circles”, but this quest for depth does make the conversations here more abstract and esoteric than real conversations tend to be.

The climactic event in the novel is also overwrought, soap opera-ish.

Emotional depth and intensity are good things.  Still I don’t believe the characters in ‘In Certain Circles’ are sufficiently anchored to the real world.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Ah. I liked this. (http://anzlitlovers.com/2014/04/27/in-certain-circles-by-elizabeth-harrower/) I could see Patrick White’s influence in the arch way the characters speak: you’re right, it’s not natural, but IMO it’s not meant to be.
    It’s been nominated for various prizes this year, it will be interesting to see if it wins one of them.

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    • Hi Lisa,
      I liked much about this novel, but the climax, the two letters Anna sends to Zoe and Russell, seemed quite overwrought. I don’t care for novels that only stay on the surface, but if one does get into the deep emotional territory it still needs to be anchored in everyday life.
      I suppose it is up against ‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London for a few of these awards.

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      • Yes, it is, and the usual encouragement debut author shortlistees as well. We’ll have to wait and see!

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        • Hi Lisa,
          Elizabeth Harrower and Joan London, as well as being two fine Australian novelists I’ve discovered in recent years, both seem to have an independent streak of not writing to appeal to the masses.

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          • Yes, their books derive from having something important to say, not with one eye on the marketing department.
            But perhaps also close observation. You can tell from their characterisation that they’ve spent time observing people from inside their own circle and outside it, and listening to them.

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  2. […] at Tony’s Book World reviewed it […]

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  3. I loved Harrower’s In Certain Circles, but must admit it seemed stagey. Still, it is so much better than most of what gets published. I agree that The Watch Tower is a masterpiece.

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    • Hi Kat,
      Agreed, ‘In Certain Circles’ is better than most that gets published. However she lost me with the mailed suicide letters; the novel was already on the over-wrought side.

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