Three residents of Sarsaparilla, Australia, are dying: Alf Dubbo, an Aborigine painter; Miss Mary Hare, an aging spinster from a good family; and Mordecai Himmelfarb, an elderly Jewish immigrant, or “New Australian,” working in a factory. Before their deaths, the three recall the events of their lives. Mary Hare is the last remnant of a distinguished old Australian settler family. Her estate, Xanadu, is deteriorating and is being rapidly encroached upon by the expanding middle-class suburb of Sarsaparilla. Miss Hare was once a beautiful young woman, but she frittered away her potential chances at happiness with her cousin Eustace and with other young men and has become an old maid living in her estate on drastically diminished revenues.
After the end of World War II, an English cousin resumes paying Miss Hare an allowance and she simultaneously finds herself in need of assistance with keeping her house in order. She engages a housekeeper, Mrs. Jolley. Mrs. Jolley enjoys discussing everything that happens at Xanadu with her friend Mrs. Fleck. Mrs. Jolley is a widow and has been rejected by her family as the probable murderess of her husband. Miss Hare soon learns to fear Mrs. Jolley’s ordinariness and her spite. The two women develop an intense love-hate relationship.
Miss Hare recounts some of the details of her life to Mrs. Jolley: She grew up as the only, ugly, and unwanted daughter of English parents whose delusions of grandeur were reflected in the name of their house—Xanadu. She was nursed back to life from a serious illness by a local washerwoman, Mrs. Ruth Godbold. During her illness, she saw what she calls the “Chariot” and believes that she was therefore marked as a “rider”; she believes that Mrs. Godbold is a rider as well. She has fleeting encounters with two other riders: Dubbo and Himmelfarb. She also encounters Mrs. Flack, feeling her to be a palpable, malevolent presence.
Himmelfarb tells his story to Miss Hare when they meet by chance in the overgrown grounds of Xanadu. Himmelfarb comes from a wealthy German Jewish family that had the wherewithal and international connections to send him to university at Oxford, in England. There, he was traumatized when he caught a young woman with whom he had fallen in love, Catherine, having sexual relations with an Indian prince. Himmelfarb’s father had converted to Catholicism to escape the stigma of being a Jew; his wish to assimilate into European society was such that he referred to his son Mordecai as “Martin.” Both generations’ illusions of escaping their Jewish identity—the father’s through conversion, the son’s through assimilation—were shattered with the rise of the Nazis and their anti-Semitic policies.
As the Nazis rose to power, Himmelfarb was sheltered for a time by old friends. When they, too, were taken by the Nazis, he gave himself up as a Jew and tried ineffectually to help his people while on the train to the gas chambers. Although he failed, he was miraculously delivered from the extermination camp and, half-blinded by the symbolic loss of...
(The entire section is 1261 words.)