The Transit of Venus By Shirley Hazard

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This title was mentioned in passing during a panel discussion I heard on the radio a few years ago. I went out and bought the book immediately but it has only just surfaced out of my bedside inventory and I am sorry it took so long for me to discover the work of the late Shirley Hazzard. I am sorry as well, that her output, much like some of my favourite authors (Jane Austen, The Brontë sisters, even Mrs. Gaskell) is much too small. Her writing is astonishingly well done. It is as much her sentence construction as it is the weaving of her story that makes her fiction so readable.

The title refers to an astronomical phenomenon that is a sort of face to face encounter of the earth and Venus when Venus can be seen with the unaided eye crossing in front of the sun, visible as a tiny black dot. The transit occurs in pairs of crossings split eight years apart. Thus the phenomenon occurred in this century with Venus making her crossing in June of 2004 and again in June of 2012. These pairs of transits occur every one hundred and five years. The next pair won’t occur until 2117 and 2125. So, with such a deliberately evocative title as: The Transit of Venus the reader, feels compelled to look for metaphors.

The story concerns two sisters born in Australia who are orphaned as children and raised by their older, stepsister Dora who sees her rôle in life as an unappreciated self-sacrificing martyr.  Shortly after the second World War they all move to England in search of a better life. The older sister, Caro, (diminutive for Caroline), wrote the civil service exams and found a job as a linguist/translator with the ministry of foreign affairs while the younger sister, Grace  married a highly placed career civil servant named Christian Thrale,  the son of a well-known  astronomer Professor Sefton Thrale. The trajectory of Caro’s life is influenced by her unfortunate misalliance with a successful but married playwright, Paul Ivory while Grace settled into a more conventional life with husband, in-laws and children. They each make their way guided, if the metaphor is pursued, by the influence of Venus, the planet named for the goddess of love.

Caro is also linked to the young astronomer, Ted Tice who she met through Grace’s father in-law. His transit has a much more rocky passage across the sun as his love for Caro is unrequited. Caro eventually regroups and leaves her playwright lover behind for an American social activist named Adam Vail with whom she moves to New York . Thus, the themes of the story are deliberately and skillfully tied up with pairings and entanglements and personal journeys in twos.  Even Dora finds a partner and is undone or in a way, maybe not, by the choice she makes.

Anyone who appreciates a good story and enjoys the novel form in particular will love this book and want to read it a second time. There are two reasons for this: first, the story engages the attention immediately as the reader is caught up in the  characters’ lives and concerned with their progress and second, it is a novel with hidden surprises that astonish so you may want to go back and figure out how this was done. These surprises are created by seeds of information dropped throughout the story. This casual dropping of clues that turn out to be important later on can be a tricky undertaking . I remember feeling quite annoyed at times with the author Robertson Davies for employing such tactics; thinking he was playing with and teasing his loyal readers. Here I felt no such annoyance, I was thoroughly engaged by the story and accepted the revelations and unravelling of events as the author rolled them out.

I  feel compelled to hunt out Shirley Hazzard’s best known novel The London Fire which is tucked away somewhere in this house and I shall move it toward the top of that  ever growing reading inventory of mine.

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