Book review: A Few Days in the Country, Elizabeth Harrower

By David Hill

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Elizabeth Harrower. Photo / Supplied
Elizabeth Harrower. Photo / Supplied

Please add the name of Elizabeth Harrower to the embarrassingly long list of authors I should have read years ago.

Most of the Sydney writer's novels and stories were published half a century ago. For decades, they've been admired by students and academics but largely unavailable to the wider public. The dozen short fictions in A Few Days in the Country should help change that.

They're set mostly in a 1950s-60s Australia that is comfortable and affluent, repressive and xenophobic. Women know their place and their husband's fists. Challenge or eccentricity calls for medical intervention.

Motifs of inequality and casual injustice thread through them. Men get a bleak press, and generally deserve it.

A stepfather pretty much bullies his wife to death. A pinched patriarch runs lives and living places without a thought for others.

Matriarchs and matrons aren't spared, either. One categorises her friends as Class I or Class II, and fawns or dismisses correspondingly. Another destroys a free spirit and a friendship out of oblivious envy.

The pettiness of such tyranny doesn't excuse it. Victims are "anguished, struck back, hacked to the ground". But though Harrower may be, well, harrowing, she's never didactic or mawkish, and one of this collection's pleasures is the victories her patient protagonists enjoy, the ways some of them emerge "not crying, but brilliant-eyed".

So for outsiders Leonie and Janie, the walls of isolation crumble. Laura endures boorishness and boredom, while realising she'll never be insulted again. Others congratulate themselves on just surviving: "... we kept on, and we swept up the leaves".

Harrower's heroines (and they do deserve that epithet) are quiet, complex and should never be under-estimated but often are. They're also unsettlingly truthful; accept that parents grow old and shabby; that even dear friends come to resemble faded frescoes.

Loneliness lurks and violence flickers; Lance's face and his mother's hands are scarred. Sophie, of the title story, who's never thought of suicide, now can't stop contemplating it.

But things are leavened and quickened by wry, subversive humour. You'll enjoy the bottle through the TV and the subsequent prison library epiphany. Pip wonders if she'll make the next Honours List for raising the national level of blunders. Many, mischievous more.

Harrower's writing is close, meticulous and cross-stitched with careful thought. Her people are always credible, either stoically engaging or satisfyingly repellent. Modest fiction usually wears better than virtuoso stuff and these compelling stories exemplify that fact.

A Few Days In The Country by Elizabeth Harrower (Text $37)
Reviewed by David Hill

- Canvas

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