IN CERTAIN CIRCLES

Elizabeth Harrower

Zoe Howard is seventeen when her brother, Russell, introduces her to Stephen Quayle. Aloof and harsh, Stephen is unlike anyone she has ever met. His sister, Anna, is shy and thoughtful.

Zoe and Russell, Stephen and Anna: they may come from different social worlds but all four will spend their lives moving in and out of each other’s shadow.

Set amid the lush gardens and grand stone houses that line the north side of Sydney Harbour, In Certain Circles is an intense psychological drama about family and love, about tyranny and freedom.

The manuscript of In Certain Circles lay buried in the archives of the National Library of Australia for decades.

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Zoe Howard is seventeen when her brother, Russell, introduces her to Stephen Quayle. Aloof and harsh, Stephen is unlike anyone she has ever met. His sister, Anna, is shy and thoughtful.

Zoe and Russell, Stephen and Anna: they may come from different social worlds but all four will spend their lives moving in and out of each other’s shadow.

Set amid the lush gardens and grand stone houses that line the north side of Sydney Harbour, In Certain Circles is an intense psychological drama about family and love, about tyranny and freedom.

The manuscript of In Certain Circles lay buried in the archives of the National Library of Australia for decades. Completed in 1971, five years after Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower appeared to great acclaim, this long-lost novel is the work of a major writer.

Audience:

For fans of postwar literature, and for readers who enjoy complex characters

and strong themes regarding the lives of women in families and at work. Love and marriage are at the centre of this novel but it is the antithesis of a romance. Relationships, whether between lovers, spouses or familial, are shown as complex, ambivalent and sometimes cruel, rarely based on mutual understanding. In Certain Circles dissects its characters, exposing their failings and analysing their behaviour and motivations. It also examines class, cultural and political issues of its time, particularly as they affect women.

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  • Text Publishing
  • Hardcover
  • August 2014
  • 256 Pages
  • 9781922182296

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About Elizabeth Harrower

Elizabeth Harrower was born in Sydney in 1928. In 1951 she travelled to London and began to write. Harrower’s first novel, Down in the City, was published there in 1957 and was followed by The Long Prospect a year later. In 1959 she returned to Sydney, where she worked in radio and then in publishing. Her third novel, The Catherine Wheel, appeared in 1960.

Harrower published The Watch Tower in 1966. Four years later she finished a new novel, In Certain Circles, but withdrew it from publication at the last moment, in 1971. It remained unpublished until 2014. In Certain Circles is Harrower’s final completed novel, though in the 1970s and 1980s she continued to write short fiction. She is one of Australia’s most important postwar writers. She was admired by many of her contemporaries, including Patrick White and Christina Stead, who both became lifelong friends. Her novels are now being acclaimed by a new generation of readers. Elizabeth Harrower lives in Sydney.

Praise

Witty, desolate, truth-seeking, and complexly polished” —James Wood, New Yorker

“A treasure from an unearthed time capsule.” —Wall Street Journal

“Haunting…Harrower captures brilliantly the struggle to retain a self.” —Guardian

“Beautifully written, utterly hypnotic.” —Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is A Half-formed Thing

Discussion Questions

What “circles” is the title referring to?

Why is Zoe immediately attracted to a man who is dismissive of her, who does not exalt her as everyone else does?

Is Russell damaged? Do you blame him for the damage he does to others?

Why don’t we ever meet Joseph directly even though he was Zoe’s lover during a significant period of her life?

Despite sharing the same childhoods, Stephen and Anna act and feel very differently to one another? Why?

Anna reflects in her diary that she doesn’t want to be Zoe, and that ‘All that has happened feels necessary. I can’t picture it different. I would not want to be someone else’ (77). Is Anna unique in this among the characters?

Early on, when she is getting to know Stephen, Zoe thinks, ‘Something in him took her from the pink marshmallow castle of her life to a high cliff over the ocean in the real world’ (43). Is this an accurate reflection of Stephen’s transformation of Zoe’s life? Is Zoe in the real world when she marries Stephen? After she marries him, she reflects that ‘she had turned into this new thing—a suppliant, but a suppliant with a purpose: all to be well with Stephen. She had fallen through him into the universe, into her real self’ (129). What is Zoe’s real self?

Imagining describing her relationship with Stephen to a hypnotherapist, Zoe says, ‘But I’m the guilty party…I let it happen. Let the words be said, and listened. Agreed to be devalued to the point where I’m of less consequence than anyone in the world’ (152). Is Zoe at fault for the situation she finds herself in?

To what extent is Stephen at fault for his behaviour?

Does the novel paint an irredeemably negative picture of marriage? Do you think Russell and Anna going to be ‘extremely happy’, as Lily declares they will be?

Anna suggests that something between her experience and Zoe’s would be best for preparing for life. ‘Some life with great variety…with some rigour and real encounters. Whatever they might be. More connections with the varieties of reality’ (165). She then shrugs ‘with self-derision’, but does she mean it? Can you define an ‘ideal preparation for life?

Talk about the importance of work to the characters and how they view its importance (a view that changes for most of them over the course of the novel).

In the car with Russell, Anna ‘felt her skeleton waver secretly, as though it were seaweed pressed about by movements of deepest seas, invisible on the glittering surface’ (133). Discuss Harrower’s descriptions of her characters’ experiences of emotion.

In Certain Circles explicitly grapples with feminist themes. Talk about Harrower’s portrayal of both women and of feminist ideas.

Zoe jokes with Stephen about the ‘national inferiority complex’ (127). In such a psychological novel, how important are broader political issues like the cultural cringe?

This novel was written in 1971, but was only published in 2014. Is it as relevant now as it was when it was written? Or, indeed, are we able to appreciate it more now?