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Shirley Hazzard’s CLIFFS OF FALL

“Elizabeth got used to the sound of her own laughter, which she had at first found faintly improper.”

(From “Cliffs of Fall”.)

Ugh, I hate reviewing Shirley Hazzard’s CLIFFS OF FALL. What words can be used to describe such beautiful, lyrical, bittersweet, intelligent writing? Better, surely, to just read the words themselves. And I think you should, you should really read CLIFFS OF FALL because it is sad and beautiful and bittersweet, and Shirley Hazzard *should be more read*. She even made me want to use phrases like ‘our Shirley Hazzard’ or ‘one of Australia’s best exports’, taking refuge in cliche to hide from the dazzling brilliance of her writing. I’m so glad she’s written this book, this collection of, well, not even short stories, but of *moments*, sparkling moments chipped from a colossal diamond that Hazzard probably keeps in her apartment. (I’m not sure which apartment, either the one in New York or the one in Capri. A citizen of the world, she was born in Australia.)

There are themes uniting Hazzard’s works: yearning and sadness, maturity, society, femininity, duty. Relationships. What is said and what it means. What is not said.

None of which would have attracted me to the collection, I admit, unless someone I respected had told me, “Shirley Hazzard is one of the best short story writers working today.” So I will just say to you: Shirley Hazzard is one of the best short story writers working today. But, again, be aware she’s not dealing in narrative. She’s dealing in moment. In emotion, finely expressed and exquisitely, attentively observed.

Some motifs return, such as the aloof male partner, the “meekly attentive” female partner (description quoted from “In One’s Own House”), the social expectations surrounding them from his mother to the people they were at the party with. And there is so much careful detail, almost casually presented, that you have the sense you are there, I mean, really *there* in the 1950s/60s, in an elegant house wearing elegant clothes and swapping witticisms with dreadfully refined men and women at an exquisite ‘do’, while Hazzard’s characters give controlled smiles to everyone they meet (while secretly harbouring complex emotions and reactions which would have them turfed from said party if they dared speak them out loud).

I thought at first Hazzard’s greatest power was the remarkable balance and efficiency of her prose, the moments of sly wit. Lines like this:

“He linked across the lock a small gilt chain in which May had complete confidence.”

(From “A Place in the Country”.)

Doesn’t that just say it all? A security chain on the back of the door, a slight measure in which most of us have ‘complete confidence’. Except it doesn’t. It doesn’t say it all. Because then I realised that the real power of this sentence on its own isn’t felt, that the true impact is not from the innate wryness of tone but relies on it’s equally balanced and efficient context. Because the ‘he’ in that sentence is May’s husband. And the reason May’s confidence is so very ironic is because the true danger in the story doesn’t come from without. It’s already inside, as May’s husband locks the door against social judgement and resumes the affair he’s been having with May’s young cousin.

*Now* read that sentence, & see how much power and meaning Hazzard has packed into it:

“He linked across the lock a small gilt chain in which May had complete confidence.”

Are you thinking ‘poor May’? Let me assure you, that’s because you haven’t met her. Or maybe it’s because you read all the way to the end, because by then Hazzard has given you enough insight into every character that you will find yourself warming to the cold, methodical May in ways you hadn’t anticipated. And she’ll do that, again, in a sentence.

I admit that Hazzard’s characters have a sameness of affect (or even effect), so much so it’s occasionally hard to tell one long-suffering woman from another, or one intelligent-but-emotionall-distant man from another. But the pace of the pitch-perfect prose is enough to keep you reading, and the fact, again, that the stories are *moments* means in the end they feel as if they might even add up to one story, one set of circumstances for one set of characters – an observation that is only obvious when the stories are collected together in this one, slim volume.

Which I strongly urge you to read.

“For the fact was that they were not really suited to one another, which he would have discovered if he had ever tried to understand her properly.”

(From “The Picnic”.)

 

—–

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief

 

This review is part of the AWWC2012 challenge & is cross posted on Goodreads.com.

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