The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, I bought this on the basis of a Bryan Appleyard article where he mentioned Hazzard as one of his contenders for greatest living novelist; in fact, he entertained the possibility that The Transit of Venus was ‘the most perfect novel written in the past 100 years’.

I was less taken by this one than the Robinson. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good novel: lots of strong characters, a sense of time and place, a rich and engaging plot. And occasionally it’s very funny; there’s a vein of acid social satire running through it which just helps give it a bit of an edge. There’s an account of the changing reputation of a poet over his career which is absolutely superb, for example.

And yet… it never quite wowed me as much as Housekeeping. That novel, for me, had a touch of magic and uniqueness to it that made it really stand out. ToV by comparison seems ordinary. A very good example of a conventional novel, but conventional nonetheless. It didn’t help that I never quite settled with the prose style. It has a kind of staccato portentousness that, even after a couple of hundred pages, still kept niggling slightly.

If I sound rather negative, it’s only relative to the claim that the book is the most perfect of the past 100 years; it’s a good book, I’m glad I read it, and I’d generally recommend it. But for whatever reason of personal taste or mood, it didn’t blow me away. Shrug.

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