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The Hanging Garden

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jun 3, 2013
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Fans of Australian novelist and playwright Patrick White can rejoice: His last novel, never completed, is now available. Though representing only the first third of his originally intended work, this posthumously published short novel contains White’s signature stylistic touches: Stream-of-consciousness interludes abound, and the narration jumps from third to first person perspectives abruptly and yet without causing a break in the flow.

"The Hanging Garden" refers to the grounds of a house in Neutral Bay, Australia, owned by a woman named Mrs. Bulpit. It’s to this house that young Eirene Sklavos’ mother takes her after the death of her father, and as World War II engulfs Greece. Eirene’s mother is from Neutral Bay, and has a sister still living there; she’s lived a wild life, by her sister’s lights, and now the time has come for her to settle her accounts, but Eirene’s mother has other adventures in mind. The aunt is content to leave Eirene’s care to for Mrs. Bulpit, who has another young charge staying with her, a boy about Eirene’s age who hails from London. His name is Gilbert Horsfall. He, too, has been lodged with Mrs. Bulpit by his guardian.

At first, the two children are wary of one another. But because they have no one else in this strange land who can sympathize with their situation -- and, it’s implicit, also because they are entering adolescence -- a connection begins to form between them that is, from the start, as physical as it is emotional. When the two are compelled to share Gilbert’s room briefly, Eirene takes in the sight of his undressed body with more interest than Gilbert seems to have in her; Eirene’s dreams that night are an uneasy mishmash of recollections based on her mother’s flirtatious behavior with men, the central theme being a "cruel tango" that she does with various partners.

Sexuality and hazard are deeply entwined in this narrative; when, at another point, their arms brush, Eirene imagines that his skin has "tiny hooks." It’s a reference, probably, to his body hair, but those hooks that catch at her are also meaningful in other ways, and they don’t stay tiny. She’s loath to turn herself over entirely, but already Eirene is becoming attached to Gilbert, and it’s not long before Gilbert’s own emerging urges come to the fore.

If this is a "coming of age" novel, it’s more about Eirene’s maturation. When White skips from third person into first and takes up residence behind the eyes, and the "I" of a character, it’s Eirene... or Ireen, Irene, or Reeny, as she comes to be called. Indeed, both Eirene and Gilbert begin to change into something different from who they were upon their first arrival: She remains opaque to adults and even to most other kids, but time (and a cluster of catastrophes) do exert an inexorable pull.

Gilbert’s changes are less internal, if more physically pronounced; his accent starts to shift from that of a Londoner to an Australian’s, and his limbs grow long. When the two are eventually parted (not, one suspects, forever -- though who knows what White would have done with the other two-thirds of the novel, had he written them?), it’s at a confusing time. They linger in one another’s minds, with unfinished business -- or, perhaps, business just begun -- between them.

Taken on its own, this novel is a meditation on loss and change, and the ways in which identity lags behind circumstance but eventually adapts to it. It also has a larger humanistic sense, conveyed richly in White’s oddly enunciated observations and resonant prose. The "hanging garden" of Eirene and Gilbert’s fading childhood is, one feels, a metaphor for the mythical Garden of Eden, and a time of innocence no longer enjoyed. But innocence is one thing, and naiveté another; Eirene is no clueless waif. She’s all too conscious of how power works between friends and relations, and between children and adults. When a seedy uncle makes a ham-handed pass at her, it’s a horrifying scene -- but part of the horror is the too-early maturity with which Eirene parses the incident, with a mixture of detachment and unnerving carnal instinct.

There’s no use creating a legend in one’s mind about the "lost classic" the book could have been, no more than it’s productive to spin nostalgic fantasies about a golden age of childhood for individuals or preternatural grace for humankind in general. The book is what it is; glorious, maybe a little grimy, and yet possessing more than a tinge of the "pneuma" of which Eirene, native Greek-speaker of the Orthodox faith, speaks.

In Eirene, and so in "The Hanging Garden," ancient mysteries still hold sway; she was weaned, after all, on the ancient tragedians. It’s only fitting that it’s into her thoughts White plunges, where pneuma and the numinous both loiter and, at times, take flight. Gilbert may be, in some sense, the earthly anchor that steadies her, but we can sense this much: Eirene lifts him, if only so slightly, from the ground.

by Patrick White

"The Hanging Garden"
Picador
$15
www.picadorusa.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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