Book Review: Happy Valley

By John McCrystal

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Happy Valley by Patrick White
Text $37

Book cover of Happy Valley. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Happy Valley. Photo / Supplied

Before he became a household name in Australia, let alone around the world, Patrick White wrote this, his first novel, Happy Valley. According to the introduction to this edition, published to mark the centenary of the great writer's birth, he refused to allow its re-publication during his lifetime.

You can sort of see why. It's been suggested that White based the characters of the novel's Quong family rather too closely on a Chinese family of his acquaintance, and was uncomfortable with the attitudes he expressed toward them in Happy Valley. But it's more likely that he felt the work was too callow: he must have looked back on it as a master sculptor will recall his early efforts in playdough.

While many of the hallmarks of his later works - the meandering point of view, the Joycean fondness for stream of consciousness - are present, there's something a little disorganised and experimental about them in this instance, although it is still a powerful piece of work, and one that has weathered the passage of time well.

While White spent much of his life abroad, notably in Britain and the United States, Australia simply saturates his first novel. Partly that's likely to be because it was informed by his experiences as a farming cadet in rural New South Wales. But mostly it's because although his relationship with the Lucky Country was one of mutual diffidence (Australia got over all that once White became famous, even if White never really did), it defined him, shaped his voice and guided his pen.

The story opens quite literally from a bird's eye perspective, with a hawk hovering over the farming hamlet of Happy Valley as Clem Hagan arrives to take up a position as a farm overseer on Glen Marsh, the prosperous run belonging to a squatter by the name of Stanley Furlow. The perspective descends and becomes more involved, as Hagan becomes romantically entangled with the bored wife of the local schoolmaster and also obsessed with Sidney Furlow, his employer's brat daughter.

And it follows the parallel blossoming of an affair between Halliday, the town's doctor, and Alice Brown, the wallflower piano teacher. You sense from the outset that none of these things are going to end that well, even if the melodramatic scale on which they come to grief springs something of a surprise.

There are, perhaps, too many characters jostling for attention; some are bound to languish on the sidelines. But the chief protagonists feel real, and the stream of consciousness snippets of their thoughts to which we are privy ring true. It's hard not to care, even for the callous Clem Hagan, the despicably weak Vic Moriarty, the tormented Dr Halliday and the sole innocent, Alice Brown.

You feel acutely the dilemmas that are cast up where self-interest and the pursuit of rare chances for happiness meet morality and the interests of others crosswise.

There are passages to savour, such as this description of Stan Furlow: "Mr Furlow hadn't a mind, only a mutual understanding between a number of almost dormant instincts. He was vaguely attached to his property, still more vaguely to his wife, because these were habit, they were there, he accepted them."

For devotees of White, this is an interesting piece of juvenilia. For those who haven't yet had the pleasure, this is about as good a place to start as any.

John McCrystal is a Wellington writer.

- NZ Herald

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