The Transit of Venus – Shirley Hazzard

“Even through a telescope, some people see what they choose to see. Just as they do with the unassisted eye.” He said “Nothing supplies the truth except the will for it.”

I first learned of Shirley Hazzard through this wonderfully enticing review by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers Litblog. She has been on my radar ever since and I started reading The Transit of Venus during Rachel and Caroline’s Virago Reading Week, quickly realising I wasn’t going to finish it in a few days. If there is ever a book not to be skim read, this is it.

Having finished it now, I have been milling around in my head how to write about it in a way that does it justice. There is something deep, beautiful and difficult in the writing with plenty of words I had never heard of. Many of the sentences are a work of art in themselves, to be read and reread, I imagine more meaning is to be found with each reading. I’m not sure if it is because of or inspite of this that it is such an incredible read. I’m sure there will be people who don’t like this style, I know after the first 40 or so pages i was tempted to put it aside for another time. Eventually I fell into the story and stopped struggling with the subtleties.

Nothing creates such untruth in you as the wish to please

The Transit of Venus is a homage to love and living life in an authentic, uncompromising way through the good times and through sadness and tragedy. It is no doubt so much more than that as well but that was what I loved about it. There was a discussion during Virago Reading week about favourite heroines and to me Caro Bell is a wonderful heroine. One of two orphaned Australian sisters who travel to England post WWII looking for a better life, she is handsome rather than beautiful, adventurous, educated and independant at a time when it was more the norm to be sweet and accommodating like her sister Grace. Full of substance with a cool exterior yet unwavering in love and truth. Fabulous!

And the hero of this story is Ted Tice, a scientist in love with Caro from the moment he sets eyes on her. A love that spans decades and alters the course of his life. The quiet, moral backbone of the story.

Under the curve of a stair, a door was open on a corridor of Persian runner. And above, on the arc of stairs, there was a young woman, standing still.
Tice looked up to her. It would have been unnatural not to. He looked up from his wet shoes and his wet smell and his orange blotch of cheap luggage. And she looked down, high and dry. He had an impression of her body in its full dimensions – as if he had passed at her back and seen her strong spine, the black hair parting on the prominent cord of the nape, the fragile crease behind the knee. Her face was in shadow. In any case it would have been too pat, too perfect, if she had been seen to be beautiful.

There are several of what I suppose you could call peripheral characters who are interesting in their own right. But it is the story and stories of Caro Bell and Ted Tice that are so captivating.

Shirley Hazzard includes references to topical political events of the 1940’s and decades that follow. She assimilates these in a way that assumes the reader is familiar with these events. Disasters, death and the threat of death are a constant, lurking throughout.

Out of interest, the term transit of venus refers to an event similar to a solar eclipse. It is the study of this that brings Ted Tice to the same house as Caro Bell at the beginning of the story and the beginning of what is to become an acclaimed career for him.

Isn’t the VMC cover just beautiful? It is not the one I read but I am going to be on the lookout for it now. I see it was originally called A Transit of Venus – I wonder why it was changed in later additons. This is one of many questions I have, including people’s thoughts on the ending which I’m not 100% clear on. Is it what is implied? Could it really be?

You know how sometimes after reading a book you develop a need to lay your hands on everything an author has written? That’s how I feel after reading this – a wonderful discovery.

So what next after a book like this? Well, I am part way through Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones and also The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, neither are doing the trick just yet. The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell looks more promising. After two chapers I’m going to like it I think.

1980, 337 pages

6 responses to “The Transit of Venus – Shirley Hazzard

  1. I’m so glad you liked this:) I think it’s a wonderful book, with – as you say – unforgettable characters.
    Don’t give up on Hand Me Down World – just go with the flow and imagine that you are eavesdropping on a whole bunch of people, not necessarily truthful, talking about someone. (I reviewed that one too, see
    All the best

    • Lisa – thank you – I’ll revisit Hand Me Down World and see where it takes me. I really want to like Lloyd Jones’s books but am just not quite there yet.. I’m going to pop over and read your review 0:)

  2. This sounds wonderful! I’m going to check it out. It reminds me, in the way you tell it, of Rosamund Lehmann.

    • booksnob – Do check it out, it is worth it and I would love to read your thoughts on it. I’m going to add Rosamund Lehmann to my read soon list as well 0:)

  3. Tracey — Would you be willing to write about how you understand the ending of The Transit of Venus? I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

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