Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 292 pages; 2013.
First published in 1958, The Long Prospect was Elizabeth Harrower’s second novel. It is a powerful example of Australian postwar literature, the kind of meaty novel that thrusts you into the messy lives of fascinating characters (some of them unkind), and then leaves an indelible impression.
Life in a boarding house
In it we meet 12-year-old Emily Lawrence, a lonely and unpopular girl living in a boarding house run by her maternal grandmother, Lilian, in the industrial northern town of Ballowra (said to be a thinly veiled version of Newcastle in NSW). Her parents, Harry and Paula, are estranged and live separate lives in Sydney.
Lilian is a domineering personality and she has few kind words to say to her granddaughter, whom she largely ignores, preferring to focus on her other interests instead — namely horse racing, gossiping with her friends and bossing around her new lover, Rosen, who also happens to be one of her boarders.
It’s only when a new boarder arrives, the fiercely intelligent scientist, Max, who works in the steelworks, that things begin to look up for Emily, for Max is a kind-hearted man and recognises Emily’s need for friendship and adult attention. He talks to her about great literature and science, treating her as an equal and encouraging her to pursue her studies and to dream big. But Lilian is not keen on their friendship and the novel’s storyline pivots on a dramatic confrontation with far-reaching consequences.
An immersive, slow burning story
Admittedly, it took me a long time to get into this story. It’s a slow burner, perhaps because the text is so dense and Harrower takes her time to build up a picture of the inner lives of this small dysfunctional family and its bitter, often cruel, self-absorbed members.
Long before we are ever introduced to Max, we come to know Emily quite intimately. We understand her love-starved existence — the crush she had on a former boarder and career woman, Thea; the other crush she developed on a teacher, who failed to truly notice her; the disintegration of a valued friendship with a girl when she realised Emily was from a poorer, less socially acceptable class; her distant relationship with her father, Harry, whom she regards as a stranger; the lack of bond she feels with her mother, who was packed off to Sydney to earn a living when her marriage began to fail — and wish we could teach her to see beyond her troubled life.
That’s where Max comes in, for when he arrives the narrative begins to pick up speed, as he teaches Emily to try new things, to overcome her shyness, to learn about the world beyond the four walls of her bedroom.
“About people—it’s still true, Emmy. Don’t spend your nights being afraid of murderers and your days being shy, but at the same time, remember—”
He hardly knew how to voice a warning without frightening her, her reaction to his least word was apt to be disproportionate. He said, “Learn from people, but don’t be dispersed by them. And remember that the bad times have compensations. Unhappiness is not all loss. Not by any means. […]”
The Long Prospect fully immerses the reader in the domestic realm of an unconventional household. The characters are flawed, authentic, original. Harrower’s uncanny eye for detail and her descriptions of the heat and the industrial landscape make Ballowra a character in its own right, too.
But she’s also incredibly perceptive about the psychology of people and what makes various “types” tick (especially prepubescent girls, in this case), and her dialogue, complete with barbed comments and little cruelties, is brilliantly believable.
This deftly written story about family ties, cruelty, heartache, friendship and coming of age only confirms my opinion that Elizabeth Harrower is one of Australia’s most important writers. I can’t wait to read the rest of her back catalogue.
This is my my 9th book for #AWW2017 and my 8th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it at the start of the year when I decided to purchase all of Harrower’s back catalogue and read them in the order in which they were written. I read Down in the City, her debut novel first published in 1957, in January and absolutely loved it.