Sunday 27 October 2013

'Happy Valley' by Patrick White (Review)

After my recent review of Le Colonel Chabert, today it's time for the second of my Christmas Humbook selections.  Lisa, of ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, chose a couple of Aussie books for me to try, and this post looks at the first of them.  The novel is not widely read, but the writer is very well-known...

Patrick White is still Australia's only real Nobel Prize for Literature winner (for me, the South-African import J.M. Coetzee doesn't really count...), and Happy Valley, brought out in the Text Classics series, was his first novel, a book which he refused to allow to be republished during his lifetime.  It's a shame because it's a great read, an addition to the body of Australian country literature and an ideal entry into White's work for new readers.

Happy Valley is a small town in country New South Wales, and the story takes place in the mid-to-late 1930s.  It used to be a gold-mining boom town, but now it's sparsely populated, a sleepy bush town with little going on.  The first few chapters introduce us to the town, and some of its residents, seen through the (cinematic) eyes of a hawk, hovering high overhead.  This artistic touch is soon addressed in true Aussie fashion though, as several of the characters think about shooting it down...

In these first few chapters, we meet several pivotal characters.  There's a new arrival, farm manager Clem Hagan, brought in to oversee work on the land of the Furlow family, and Doctor Oliver Halliday, bored of marriage and bored of life in Happy Valley.  Among the women, we meet potential spinster Alys Browne, and Sidney Furlow, a local heiress, beautiful and cold.  And always in the background, the Quongs, descendants of a Chinese immigrant, shopkeepers and silent witnesses to what happens in the town.

On the one hand, Happy Valley is one of those typical tales of the Australian country with its blistering summer heat, isolation, and bushfires.  There's a sense familiar to anyone who's read Oz-Lit before.  One of the minor characters, Sidney's English suitor, feels completely out of his depth:
"There is something here completely foreign to anything I know, felt Roger Kemble, those hands that touch a different substance, and despising what I touch."
p.167 (Text Classics, 2012)
The reader, however, is in very familiar territory.

White draws a skillful picture of the isolated town, small and run-down:
"Happy Valley became that peculiarly tenacious scab on the body of the brown earth.  You waited for it to come away leaving a patch of pinkness underneath.  You waited and it did not happen, and because of this you felt there was something in its nature particularly perverse." (p.138)
It's a town of few amusements, just the pub, the weekly picture hall and the annual races, and in a place where everyone knows everyone else, the arrival of a stranger (Hagan) is a big event.  What really raises interest though is when bored men and women start to look around for something to distract themselves from the torpor of everyday existence - now infidelity is really interesting...

At the heart of the story are the attempts some characters make to break free of the crushing gravitational pull of the town.  Vic Moriarty, the frustrated wife of the sickly local teacher is drawn to bad boy Clem (who also has his eyes fixed elsewhere...).  Dr. Halliday, trapped in a loveless marriage with an older woman, is looking for a transfer to Queensland, but is distracted by a blossoming friendship.  Alys Browne wants to escape to California, and is waiting for her ship (or her shares) to come in.  Many want to leave the town - it's doubtful though whether they'll actually ever manage it...

Happy Valley is a book built around the main love triangles, but there's so much more to enjoy.  White creates a great ensemble cast of characters, including the inscrutable Quongs.  The family faces subtle (and unsubtle) discrimination, looked down upon by the Anglo residents, tolerated for their use in providing daily goods.  Yet they are actually the locals, there from start to finish - the whites are the ones who are simply passing through...

In addition to the interesting plot, the book is also notable for the language used.  After the first few introductory chapters, the language becomes more complex, and there is a definite stream-of-consciousness style, with obvious influences.  Many passages evoke Woolf, and at the heart of the novel the writing becomes almost Joycean in its confusion:
"The wind is wind is water wind or water white in pockets of the eyes was once a sheep before time froze the plover call alew aloo atingle is the wire that white voice across the plain on thistle thorn the wind pricks face the licked fire the wind flame tossing out distance on a reel." (p.225)
Thoughts intermingle, sentences start and trail off, cut down by new thoughts, only half-expressed...  It's not easy to push through at times, but it's always worth it.

As far as I know, there's no paperback version of Happy Valley out yet.  Hopefully, it's on its way as it's a fascinating book, and a worthy introduction to a great writer, one more people should try.  Don't be fooled by the name of the book though - Happy Valley?  Only in the ironic Australian use of the word:
"There never was co-operation in Happy Valley, not even in the matter of living, or you might even say less in the matter of living.  In Happy Valley the people existed in spite of each other." (pp.27/8)
Ah, Australia...