Monday, 13 May 2013

The Sad Neglected: Books Unfairly Overlooked - The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower

I suppose it is wrong to call this a sad neglected book, since my copy is part of the admirable Text Classic series of reissues. On the other hand, I did get it in the remaindered bookshop and I have never heard anyone talk about it or its author. Which is evidence of just how nuts the book world is right now.

I loved this book. I loved it particularly because I'd just come from trying to love a book called The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, who, I'd discovered, is Australia's most successful author, if success is counted by sales (and for a writer really what else matters - if people don't pick up your book, you might as well not have written it, after all, [speaking of which, you might like to take a look at this]).

Anyway people are gobbling Morton up, so I got excited and thought I might enjoy her work too.

But I was wrong. Sadly, my only reaction to Morton's work was disappointment. Horrible, mind-numbing disappointment. The prose was dull, there was no insight or attempt to plunge into human psychology. No character had enough depth to be even faintly interesting. There was no feel of authenticity to the novel, on any level, just page after page of drivel about 'one of those heavenly summer days when the sky is blue and the breeze is warm and you just know there is something exciting waiting round the corner' and situations where 'each woman knew in her heart that it was the last time the one would ever see the other' and an unremitting stream of cliches, with characters being 'bundled unceremoniously' and waking 'at the crack of dawn' and finding a puncture 'plain as day', which doesn't bother them, because 'they were young and in love'.

And then there's the dialogue, which banal doesn't really do justice to:

"'I am feeling poorly.'

'Don't want pudding?'

Laurel shook her head, halfway to the door, 'Early night for me, I'm afraid, terrible to be ill tomorrow.'

'Can I get you something else? Paracetamol? Cup of tea?'

'No', said Laurel, 'No, thanks, except, Rose...'


'The play?'

'...You are a funny thing', said Rose with a lopsided smile" -

(and what the hell is a lopsided smile anyway - you have no idea how long I've stood in front of the mirror trying to work it out).

Strangely enough The Secret Keeper and The Long Prospect do have faint parallels, which possibly made the contrast between them seem more striking and the injustice to Harrower more obvious. Both books are about the same thing - an adolescent girl who is put under  a lot of strain by those who should be protecting her. However, whereas Laurel, the adolescent of Morton's novel is demonstrated to be in emotional turmoil thus:

"Laurel meanwhile took to nail-biting in earnest"

Emily, the protagonist of The Long Prospect, is portrayed with intelligence, wit, understanding and depth.

Harrower doesn't bother with some lousy plot about cake knives (why should I care who it was plunged into or why, when I can't even begin to believe that the plunger or the plunged-into exist, except as little black smudges of words on the pages of Morton's novel?) She swaps the narrative propulsion of wondering whodunnit (inasmuch as anyone does wonder) for wisdom and insight. Her story is a brilliantly observed parable, highlighting the way that children are essentially prisoners of the families into which they are born, trapped by the narrow horizons of those who have the responsibility to raise them.

Emily is a child who 'longed to be in a climate of effort where people strove, where mathematical precision would eventually arrive at the answer to all questions, and where warmth and kindness and love were everywhere, but mainly over her', but  who goes to a school where she is surrounded by a class who 'noted through eyes in the top of its hydra-head a way of sitting or of speaking that might be branded different from the norm. The imitation of any such discovery ... occupied its lunch hour' and is surrounded at home by people who would 'even laugh at Shakespeare'.

She lives with Lilian, her grandmother, about whom the best that can be said is that a'certain quantity of alcohol brought out in her a kind of mellow fruitiness that was the nearest she ever came to any kind of charm'.

Paula, Emily's mother and Lilian's daughter, lives in Sydney but visits occasionally and, apart from the rather odd circumstances of her marriage - her husband lives in a country town, where he works, but they are not planning to divorce - is a strict conventionalist. Thus, when Emily becomes very fond of Max, Lilian's lodger and the first person to pay proper attention to her, Paula is quick to accept Lilian's intimations that the relationship is odd. She has in any case already made up her mind about Max:

"She could see that under that nice-seeming manner, he thought, and wanted to talk and stir things up. It quite made her shake when people were like that. Only drunks were like that - but he wasn't a drunk. The only thing left for him to be was peculiar..."

Max, of course, is not peculiar; he is simply nice enough to recognise that the people who are supposed to look after Emily, do not in fact look'after her in any  respect was as if, being young, her connexion with the human race was very simply discounted.'

No matter. Emily is wrenched away from him. Thereafter, she works 'with fanatical thoroughness' at school, she becomes at home 'unobtrusive as a shadow', but 'under the listless surface was a hot gushing, weak but uncontrollable animal that lifted its arms and exhausted her with meaningless tears - when she broke an old saucer for instance; at any sudden noise or small accident.'

In the final pages of the novel, Emily appears to reach some new level of understanding. Our last glimpse of her, 'sapped, hollow, belatedly obedient', is, I hope not of a defeated creature but of one who knows that she has to serve time before she can escape.

Harrower's description of the careless blundering of much human life is horribly accurate, while her ability to convey Emily's emotions and character is wonderful. She also has a gift for finding the perfect descriptive phrase for objects. After reading this book, I will never look at a 1950s beehive hairstyle again without recalling Harrower's depiction of one character touching 'the wickerwork of her lacquered hair', while from now on whenever I see a palm I will think of her remark that they look like 'overgrown pineapples'.

The story of Emily and Max, in this age of moral outrage and panic about paedophilia, touches some familiar, if unsettling, chords. The vivid portrayal of Emily in particular is a great achievement, and I find myself longing to know that she ends up faring well in her later life. I suppose the Paulas and the Lilians of the world are the ones who read Kate Morton. For the Emilys and Maxes, I'm glad that Harrower is there to fill the gaps.


  1. I've just begun to read this book for the third time - my copy is not the new Text edition but a battered old Sun Books paperback that looks and is well-loved. This is a wonderful book, as are all of Elizabeth Harrower's. The recent revival of Down in the City was a joy to me. Why is this brilliant writer so unknown? She is a reassure of Australian literature who will surely be given her proper place and deserved admiration before too long. Text Books deserve a medal; and it seems that the never-published In Certain Circles will appear this year.

    1. A treasure of Australian literature.

    2. I'm sorry I didn't see your comment before. Thank you for reminding me to find In Certain Circles and buy it