This novella is a gift to all of us who love Patrick White’s strangely alive prose and a welcome addition to his oeuvre. And for those who don’t know his work, it is a terrific way to be introduced to one of the 20th century’s finest writers.
The Hanging Garden, by Patrick White. Picador Paperback, $15
By Roberta Silman
Once I got used to the idea that my new Kindle was simply another way to read and in no way affected my deep love of physical books, I realized I could put some of my long-time favorites on it and have them with me whenever I wished and wherever I was. So on went selected works by Keats, Dickens, Trollope, Tolstoi, Chekhov, Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf, and when I was checking to see if all of To The Lighthouse was there I came upon this passage just before Cam and James and their father, Mr. Ramsay, finally get to the lighthouse. This is Cam thinking:
The island had grown so small that it scarcely looked like a leaf any longer. It looked like the top of a rock which some big wave would cover. Yet in its frailty were all those paths, those terraces, those bedrooms–all those innumerable things. But as, just before sleep, things simplify themselves so that only one of all the myriad details has power to assert itself, so, she felt, looking drowsily at the island, all those paths and terraces and bedrooms were fading and disappearing, and nothing was left but a pale blue censer swinging rhythmically this way and that across her mind. It was a hanging harden; it was a valley, full of birds, and flowers, and antelopes . . . . She was falling asleep.
We will never know if this passage is what inspired and propelled Patrick White to write this novella about two lost children — not so different from James and Cam at the end of To The Lighthouse — who come as refugees to Australia during the Second World War. For he started writing it in 1981, got through a few drafts, then put it away and died in 1990. When the manuscript was found after his death, it seemed to be the first third of a novel he was planning, and his faithful agent Barbara Mobbs was so impressed not only by its wonderfully assured and controlled prose but also by its poignant and still relevant narrative that she agreed to let it see light.
Unfortunately, the story of displaced children during war seems to be timeless. In The Hanging Garden we are in Sydney in 1942, in the home of Mrs. Bulpit, a widow who takes in Gilbert Horsfall, who has lost his family in the London Blitz and Eirene Sklavos whose father died in a Greek prison and whose mother plans to return to Greece without her. The book begins with Eirene’s mother convincing the needy widow to take in her child even though her sister, the child’s Aunt, lives nearby. (The Aunt has refused because she has a houseful of boys and Eirene is right on the cusp of adolescence — a dangerous time for her, or the boys? We never really get that straightened out.)
In the end it doesn’t really matter. What matters is these two children, at first circling each other, and then forming a bond so ineffable yet so strong that you know they would have continued to be close well into adulthood if only White had lived to tell the rest of their story. What also matters is that somehow White, who was gay and childless, has an uncanny understanding of their plight and also their amazing resilience. Gilbert, has come to Australia by way of the United States, where he and several other boys were in the hands of temporary guardians, the Ballards, who have now brought their charges to their native Australia. As Gilbert makes the transition, he reflects,
And now at the end, on the pier at Sydney, in a turmoil of luggage, relatives and friends, Mrs. Ballard seemed to be avoiding him, as he avoided her. . . It was not difficult to avoid her because the person to whom he was consigned had made herself known to Mr. Ballard, who was handing over his boys with relief, as though they were parcels, unregistered ones at that.
At their first tea together, before Eirene’s mother leaves, here is White describing the two children after they have collapsed with uncontrollable nervous laughter:
The children sat behind their eyelids. They might have been sulking, wondering how much they had given away to each other, if little ripples had not returned from time to time to their cheeks.
Winner of the Nobel Prize, White was a master of his own unique, mysterious style, which immerses the reader into the action and the thoughts and memories of the characters simultaneously. And in this, his last prose work, he moves seamlessly through first, second and third points of view, so that we know exactly what is happening although sometimes we seem plunged into the middle of a dream. While we see these children learning to live together with the tippling, clueless Mrs. Bulpit, we are haunted by the bombs that killed Gilbert’s best friend Nigel Brown, as well as by Eirene’s relatives who try to protect her from the truth about her parents and their political activities.
And then there is school, where they get to know other “reffoes,” and struggle to fit in, always coming back to the Bulpit house which has become their refuge in more ways than one. Here is Eirene (whose name has been butchered by her schoolmates into Irene, or Reen, or Reenie) as they escape to the garden, wondering about what has happened to her:
‘Why don’t we build something, Eirene’ [Gilbert says] remembering Mamma perhaps, because no one else in Australia has called you Eirene, not until now and will probably never. ‘Why don’t we put a platform in the tree–where we can climb up to–and sit.’
He is breathing hard as he frees the boards, rank juices making us sneeze, his long, whole bony face thinking.
Would it be wrong to love Gilbert Horsfall’s face? To love somebody. He will kill you if he knows.
Help him drag the boards. Drag them up the tree. . . .Only when he has arranged the boards, says he must get a hammer and nails, and we are crouching there on our platform, you will know what to tell, say, do. Stroke your throat waiting for this moment you might have dreamt about now forming in the fork of this black tree.
But the blood, will it trickle down on the platform, and farther, through the cracks in our house?
Just as they begin to find a rhythm that encompasses their erotic feelings as well as their feelings of friendship, three events shatter their lives — Eirene’s mother is killed by a bomb in Greece, Mrs. Bulpit dies, Gilbert goes to boarding school and Eirene goes to live with her aunt and is molested not by her cousins but by their awful father. The last few chapters belong to Eirene, who manages to escape the horrible Lockharts, retreats into her diary, and eventually finds solace with a wealthy friend. But, at the very end of this striking and stunning little book, the war is coming to an end, and questions again abound. Eirene muses,
What happiness is, I can’t find out. Silences? Being left alone? That can become loneliness. Nearest with Gil in the arms of the great tree, in the garden which hangs above the water in Cameron Street.
Now that the war is over–the real war–your war–[your aunt] Cleonaki will surely write and you will return to what belongs to you. And Gil to London? To the bomb craters and his mother’s coffin, and his friend Nigel Brown’s ghost. Gil himself a ghost haunting the garden on the precipice in Cameron Street, as you are haunting this mouldy back yard. Twin ghosts in the one haunting.
Is this where we belong then?
The truth is that they belong nowhere, and may never belong anywhere. What White had planned for them we will never know. But at least we have this novella – which has it own integrity and a piercing resonance. It is a gift to all of us who love his strangely alive prose and a welcome addition to his oeuvre. And for those who don’t know his work, it may be a terrific way to be introduced to this great writer of the 20th century.
Roberta Silman is the author of Blood Relations, a story collection; three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again; and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. Her newest short story “The Sugar Road” can be found in the Digital Edition of The American Scholar. She writes regularly for The Arts Fuse and can be reached at email@example.com.