Book Review – Happy Valley by Patrick White

Reading Patrick White reminded me of the old Foster’s marketing campaign on “How to Speak Australian”. In one add a rugby player put a band aid on his head. He ran out to the field as an Australian voice over said, “Helmet.” The next screen showed a can of Foster’s getting slammed on a table. A voice over with an Australian accent said, “Beer. Foster’s: It’s Australian for beer.” Reading his works makes me feel like the name “Patrick White” is Australian for “Novelist.”

Mr. White held the distinction of being the Land Down Under’s sole Nobel Laureate in Literature; receiving the award in 1973. His novels presented a unique approach to writing that made his works extremely challenging (to be charitable) and perplexing (to be realistic). While still trying to wrap my mind around complex works such as The Vivisector and The Eye of the Storm, I discovered his first novel still extant. Wanting to see if some of White’s unusual approach to writing germinated in that effort, I checked it out. To my both my delight and consternation, many of the elements of his later work appeared in his 1937 debut, Happy Valley.

I struggled with this book. As I wrote above, White’s work has a reputation for difficulty. The overall premise challenged me. Nine characters, most of them major, appeared in his narrative. He depicted two unhappy marriages with the other persons playing supporting roles. After battling through Happy Valley, I have a better understanding as to why we refer to players in a novel as “characters.”

In addition, White pioneered an original approach to point of view. He wrote in third person POV. He’d center on one character and then would transition into the second person point of view. For readers scratching their heads, here’s an example.

Going home, Alys Browne felt calm and detached. She trod on a frozen puddle and heard it crack. I wanted to escape, she said, this, after all, is California, its true significance. Understanding, you felt no pain in your body, that ice did not touch, in your mind that was a fortress against pain, and Happy Valley, and because of this you lived. (Location 4862)

This section presented a unique challenge. It had the White POV transition combined with a character speaking about herself in the first person. This writing style made Ulysses seem like a light read. I didn’t commit a typo when I left out the quotation marks, either. The author chose not to include any in the text. Passages such as this provide a good example why many readers experience difficulty with this author’s work.

While understanding Happy Valley vexed me, I did find it a worthwhile read. White presented a number of exceptional lyrical flourishes that justified the effort. I liked the following poetic expression: “Words beat on the border of her mind, but did not penetrate.” (Location 1321)

In another line that I enjoyed the author exhibited outstanding imagery: “You could see the surf whiten the shore through the darkness.” (Location 1342)

I found the following one of the best chapter endings I’ve ever read.

So on, so on, with the diversity of detail and the pathetically compulsory unity of purpose that informs a town asleep. Smoke mounts faintly skywards from the chimney-pots. Dream is broken, turns, sighs. She said, she said, the wind. The cat walking on the water-butt touches with her cold pad a star, claiming it as her own, like Happy Valley extinguished by the darkness, achieving a momentary significance. (Location 1639)

After reading the above paragraph I could mentally see a book being slammed down. A voice over with an Australian accent said, “Novel.”

I appreciated reading Happy Valley even though the complexity of the plot and writing style confused me. At times my head felt like I’d just thrown back a few pints of Foster’s. With all that out of the way, I do plan on reading this book again. Now that I understand what I’m in for and have a background, I’d like to go through it once again. This time I’ll focus on mining it for the story. The way I see it, if I get flustered and the attempt drives me to drink, I’ll know just what to pick-up.

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