Shirley Hazzard Martha Heimberg - Essay

Martha Heimberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At the center of … The Transit of Venus is the adventurous life story and passionate love story of Caroline Bell, a dark-haired, Australian-born beauty whose fate carries her across three continents and into the lives of three equally various men in the span of three decades, from the fifties to the eighties.

The incidence of the magical number three cannot be accidental in this carefully constructed, powerfully told tale, which is, in fact, divided by the writer into three climactic units. There is, in addition to the evocation of numerical magic, something quintessentially medieval underlying Hazzard's exquisite prose and detailed painting of her characters and the physical nature which forms them. Not only the title, which refers to a unique astrological phenomenon involving the passage of the planet Venus across the sun, but the many references to physiognomy as a signal to character remind one of the portraiture of early medieval writers and astrologers….

Too, when Hazzard describes a house or a street, a garden or a wood, the astute and precise metaphor evoked is like a page of illuminated manuscript in which human and divine figures intermingle comfortably with the curved Latin script….

Caro submits to her fate as if to some fore-ordained script which she has not read, but which she recognizes as each scene is enacted.

Part of this, of course, is the effect of the omniscient narrator's voice, the placing of the character in his inexorable circumstances and allowing him to act. Hazzard is at her best in passages describing the human face and body in ecstacy or torment. The scene is set, the players enter stage right, and all do what they must….

The Transit of Venus is a great read, as those familiar with Hazzard's short stories in The New Yorker should not be surprised to learn. But, not only are you moved forward and into the lives of her created characters, when you put the book down, you keep remembering afterward the face, the gesture, the vision of life made possible—and all in words. And I love words; especially in the constructions writers like Hazzard make of them.

Martha Heimberg, "Love's Course Plotted," in The Lone Star Book Review (copyright © 1980 Lone Star Media Corp.), Vol. 1, No. 10, April, 1980, p. 6.