Here is Angela Long’s review of the 3rd book shortlisted in the The Stella Prize 2016. Read about the full shortlist here.
Title: A Few Days in the Country
Author: Elizabeth Harrower
Publisher: Text Publishing 2015
Category: Literary Fiction
Description: Internationally acclaimed for her five brilliant novels, Elizabeth Harrower is also the author of a small body of short fiction. A Few Days in the Country brings together for the first time her stories published in Australian journals in the 1960s and 1970s, along with those from her archives—including ‘Alice’, published for the first time earlier this year in the New Yorker. Essential reading for Harrower fans, these finely turned pieces show a broader range than the novels, ranging from caustic satires to gentler explorations of friendship.
Angela’s Review: The second of the short story collections, listed for the Stella Prize, goes beyond the angst of adolescence to delve, with sharp insight, into the emotional states of the human collective. This is the first work I have read by Elizabeth Harrower who was primarily published during the 50’s and 60’s. A contemporary of well loved authors such as Christina Stead and Patrick White, Harrower returned to publishing her work in 2014 with her novel In Certain Circles and in 2015 has brought together her collective ‘A Few Days in the Country’. From the opening sentences I was taken by the adept insight that Harrower communicates through her powerful and rich prose. It is easy to recognise the individuality in each character, they come to life and an intimacy is formed between the reader and the narrative.
The stories focus on the basics of human needs and emotions, mainly from the female perspective but in such a way that they are relevant for men and women. Although some of the pieces are time stamped with the sensibilities of the era they were written, their themes are as relevant today as 60 years ago. Topics such as depression, suicide, perfection, self confidence and friendship don’t go out of date and neither has Harrower’s work.
I loved the rituals of friendship, deftly depicted in The City at Night. The tentative acknowledgement of like souls; the reticence of the Australian culture to expose itself; compared to that of Europeans; the explosion of ‘the strange silent world of adolescence’ brought a flood of memories and a smile to my face. In an age of electronic connection this intimate convergence of like minded souls, like two prize fighters circling each other, is a tradition that hasn’t faded. Similarly the topic of mental abuse in ‘It Is Margaret’ is just as fresh albeit a darker topic. When Clelia’s mother dies, Clelia is left to handle her affairs including her step-father Theo; abuser of a woman who was ‘so gentle-seeming that, when she did face what she knew, her nature was unchanged.’ The serene commitment, of Clelia, to show compassion in the face of manipulation and tragedy, underlines the strength of the human soul. She has power for the first time in her relationship with Theo, and yet she chooses not to be reduced as a human being not to be made ‘over in his image’. This piece is a quiet, unflinching reflection on how we all have the opportunity to choose the way we treat our fellow human beings. The theme of manipulation is echoed in ‘The Cornucopia’, ‘The Beautiful Climate’ and ‘Summertime’, and yet none are repetitious but seen with a keen eye for social dominance.
There are several themes of the human condition that are repeated in various stories. Depression and futility; ‘A Few Days in The Country’, ‘The North Sea’ and ‘Lance Harper, His Story’; indifference ‘The Cost of Things’, Cornucopia; as well as compassion, independence, virtue all overlapping into the stories to create a complete picture of the characters and their circumstance. Even the ingenious metafiction piece ‘English Lessons’ is a reflection on ‘state of mind’; the power of words to wound, and our ability to sweat-the-small-things in life—an aside, an oversight. We allow our thoughts to turn septic until we bring events into perspective and regain equilibrium.
Harrower confronts life in a realistic manner. Nothing is tied up at the end for the reader’s satisfaction, but nothing leaves you dissatisfied either. Her acute eye for the human paradigm makes this one of my favourite collections and an a strong contender for this year’s Stella Prize.
For more information: Text Publishing
2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge: This book has been read and reviewed by Angela Long for Welcome to my Library for the 2016 Australian Women Writers challenge. For more information please see their website ‘Supporting and promoting books by Australian women’
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Over the next three weeks leading up to the announcement of the winner Angela will also review the following – so stay posted!
The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright