Review Blog

Apr 13 2012

The Hanging Garden by Patrick White

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Knopf Australia, 2012. ISBN 9781742752655.
Highly recommended. The Hanging Garden is a hitherto unpublished work by the deceased Nobel Prize winner Patrick White. White had instructed his literary executor to destroy all letters and unpublished work on his death, but this was not done and on the urging of David Marr, White's biographer, this work has finally been published. It is a fragment of what seems to have been intended to be a longer work, but is quite complete and satisfying in itself, and very enjoyable. The story's central characters are two children, 'reffoes' as they call themselves, sent to live in Sydney while World War II is being fought in Europe. The relationship they form with each other is informed by their previous lives in which they have each lost a parent, seen death and been excluded from their homes. Gilbert has come from England, Eirene from Greece. Such experiences are unimaginable for the Australians who care for them, and whose chief aim seems to be making the children Australian, thus ensuring health and happiness. The children quickly learn to hide their individuality and their histories, except from each other. For Eirene Gilbert is a source of knowledge and comfort; she divines his need to assume protective colouring in the form of rough speech and behaviour, and his wish to experience more than the everyday. Eirene is exotic to Gilbert; she has seen volcano, a man squashed by a tank, she speaks Greek and seems to have religion. Together they explore the garden on the cliff overhanging the harbour and develop a kind of intimacy, against the backdrop of an Australia that is almost one-dimensional and very easy to caricature.  When their guardian, too fond of a tipple, dies they are separated. The story follows Eirene as she survives life with her aunt, six cousins, named Bruce, Keith, Bob, Lex, Col and Wal, and their licentious father, while Gil disappears off to a privileged school in Vaucluse.  White's prose is assured with many astute and amusing observations about adult vanities and hypocrisies. The language is rich in metaphor, Bob and Lex, for example, being described as 'freckled, pig-rooting brumbies' in their classroom behaviour, and very engaging. The children are masterful creations, and the reader leaves them with regret when the fragment concludes with the end of the European war. This is a highly recommended work.
Jenny Hamilton

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