Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus is one of those books which asks to be enjoyed as carefully and as slowly as possible. There is no way I could have rushed through this book, instead I took it in small sections, appreciating the strange quality of Hazzard’s writing style and the unconventional way she told her story.

In the simplest terms, this is a novel about all the different ways we fall in love over a lifetime. Ted Tice adopts his love of Caro as a solid fact, something to be borne along with the other realities of his day to day existence. Caro’s loves are more varied, less idealistic but much more sensual. Grace, Caro’s sister, starts out in one seemingly safe direction and then is jolted with an unexpected situation much later in her life.

But the book also has a finger on the zeitgeist of post WWII, on the varying experiences of class, on motherhood, on power relationships between individuals, on the omnipotence of despair, and the significance of hope. These other elements stack up behind the novel’s firmer focus on those love narratives, giving them a deeper texture and structure.

Hazzard’s unique narrative style took me some time to get used to but overall I loved it (and not only because I kept experiencing echoes of Nadine Gordimer). She has a way of describing something in terms I’d never imagined before, or giving a feeling to a scene that would take me by surprise. In that sense, her characters were intriguing. They experienced their lives in ways which asked me to pause and consider whether I understood, or whether I’d ever felt something similar.

There were a few moments I wondered if Hazzard hadn’t gone a bit too far, making things more weighty or obscure than she needed. The book seems to hinge on the idea of the great mysteries of our hearts, the peculiar ways we engage with those around us, and every once in a while I felt she was letting that sentiment get carried too far away. But for the most part, this tone made the book both beautiful and complex.

I have some more to write about The Transit of Venus, and will put my thoughts together for a second post later this week. I’m thrilled to have discovered Hazzard, a writer previously unknown to me but who has three other novels waiting for me to enjoy. I have The Great Fire already and will pick it up in a few months to delve into Hazzard’s curious and lovely writing once again.

11 Responses to “the transit of venus – initial thoughts”

  1. Steph

    This was a great initial exploration of Hazzard and The Transit of Venus! Reading through your thoughts, I’m even more excited to get to this one. I love when I stumble upon a new author who has a huge back catalogue for me to read though!

  2. Stefanie

    I’ve not read Hazzard and even though I’ve heard of her I thought I would just skip her, too many other books to get to. But now I think she might not be one to skip after all.

  3. chartroose

    I need to read her too since she’s so highly regarded.

    Speaking of Gordimer, I’m starting “July’s People” tonight!

  4. Jacob Russell

    As you know, I have great respect for Hazzard… I’ve been plugging her for some time. I’m relieved that you enjoyed her writing. Nice to share this with a reader for whom I also have great respect.

  5. verbivore

    Steph – I’ll be very curious to see what you think when you get a chance to read it. As I mention, her style is peculiar, but I ended up really enjoying it.

    Stefanie – In terms of unique writers, I think she’s worth trying. Her background is so varied and she writes in such an interesting way. I’d love to hear what you think if you get the chance!

    Chartroose – I can’t wait to hear what you think about July’s People, one of my favorite Gordimer’s and short too so perfect for a first sampling of her work!

    Jacob – I knew when you mentioned it that this would be a book I’d enjoy, and would give me much to think about. You are right to champion her work and I’m surprised she is so little known. I think stylistically she’s worth studying, and I look forward to reading her other three novels. Have you read her short stories?

  6. adevotedreader

    I’m relieved you enjoyed this verbivore, as Hazzard is a favourite of mine. You’ve reminded me it’s time for a re-read!

    I’ll be interested to see if I see the similarity when I read Gordimer.

  7. verbivore

    Devoted Reader – Hazzard’s narrative style is completely unique, much more risk-taking than Gordimer’s but they share something I have a hard time putting my finger on. Perhaps just the way they bring you up short with a particular image or allusion…I’ll have to think about it some more.

    Litlove – I really think you will enjoy her writing!

  8. Dorothy W.

    Hazzard is someone I’d see in the bookstores but skip over, mostly because I hadn’t heard of anyone who had read her and so had no idea whether she was good or not (and I’m chicken about trying books I know nothing about …). I’m glad to hear she’s so interesting; perhaps I’ll pull one of her books off the bookstore shelves one of these days!

  9. Stocking Up « So Many Books

    […] Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. I got this because of Verbivore’s recent review of a different Hazzard book. I didn’t have any plan to ever read Hazzard but she made her […]

  10. Doina

    Hello verbivore,
    My comments come a little late — I wished I found your blog earlier. Your introduction to the blog (Me) is a splendid essay on Reading, on Book. And what a pleasure to find someone who enjoyed Hazzard’s exquisite novel, Transit of Venus. It is for the third time I read this novel, slowly slowly, each time picking up little gems overlooked when read it previously. But I agree with you: sometimes she goes a little carried away and, I must confess, there are obscure sentences that resist deciphering; I had to let the context guide me through. Nevertheless, it is a great read, and her style, as you rightly put it, unique and risk-taking, is challenging for the inquisitive mind, as it should be.
    My immediate plan is to visit your impressive index with authors and read your comments. I rejoice, anticipating a learning experience.
    I wish you good luck and success in your writing life.
    Doina from NY

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