I had mixed feelings about reviewing this book, and in fact I probably wouldn't have reviewed it at all if it hadn't been for the fact that I read it for a book club and the book club discussion inspired me to review it. The Transit of Venus is by Australian author Shirley Hazzard, and having heard a lot about her book that was nominated for the Lost Booker prize I was looking forward to reading it, even if it didn't live up to my expectations in some respects.
This is a difficult book to review because of my mixed feelings - there was something about it that I loved, and something about it that I hated. I'm torn in half as they say.
I loved the writing. This is true literary fiction. I might even go so far as to say that I have never read such talented writing before in my life. In this sense, I would argue that this isn't a book for book lovers, it is a book for people who truly appreciate the value and power of language. Without meaning to sound like a book snob (which I admit that I can inadvertently be one at times), if you are someone who just reads the paranormal/chick lit/romance thing, then I doubt this will be for you. This book is for people who love literary fiction at its best, and for people that value language over story.I think I am somewhere in between.
I was amazed by the language, constantly. I was thoroughly challenged by it too, which was a great change. I kept having to re-read paragraphs to make sure that I understood what Hazzard was saying. It is the kind of writing where sentences are left half complete, and the reader is left to conclude what we like. Hazzard uses the language to construct the story with such detail, that it is sometimes hard to understand the actual story. I totally missed the ending, and didn't discover what had happened until I went to the book club. In fact, most people at the book club hadn't realised what had happened at the end. The language is so beautifully complex that you really have to read and think to understand the story. It was truly beautiful.
The downfall was that the story was boring. Or at least I thought so. I was just so uninterested in these people's lives. I think the language in a way contributed to this, or at least aggravated it. Don't get me wrong. I loved and appreciated the language for what it was. But it just meant that there was this additional barrier to getting to the story that I wasn't particularly interested in anyway. I was so focused on the words, that the story became lost to me.
I am absolutely not saying that I disliked the language. Objectively I appreciated it for what it is, some of the most beautiful prose I am ever likely to read. But the challenge that the language posed limited my enjoyment of the story and made it harder to engage with the book. I am probably starting to repeat myself, but I want to make it clear what I mean when I say that I loved and hated this book.
The book club discussion was simultaneously interesting and frustrating. What was interesting was that a discussion of the book ultimately became a discussion about literature, language and the appreciation of good prose. We discussed how unusual it is in contemporary literature to read anything like the quality of writing that Hazzard has produced in this book, and how there is limited good literary fiction available in modern times (although I have to say that Atwood is an exception to this in my mind). I agreed with everyone that books these days are more likely to spoon feed you the story, and the reader doesn't need to do any of the work, which is half the point of reading (in my mind anyway).
Warning: Here comes the rant.
What I found frustrating was that the discussion became a rather ageist discussion about the failings of the education system and the failing of younger people to understand and appreciate good literature like Hazzard's. I should day that my book club is mainly made up of white women in their late 50's to 60's. Then there me and my friend, both in our mid-20's. A lot of this discussion arose from my comment that although I loved the language, I found it a barrier to the story. Most of the women seemed to think that this was simply because young people didn't get the the 'proper' education that they did, and therefore can't understand or appreciate quality prose. By 'proper' education, they seemed to mean that we weren't taught Latin or grammar.
This is true, I can't deny it (I wasn't taught Latin or grammar at school), but I very strongly disagree with their assertions. I did understand and appreciate the language, as would many other people of my age. What they didn't take into account was that everyone has different taste, and priorities in their reading. I love language, but I also love story, and I need a good story to keep me interested, and The Transit of Venus didn't give that to me.
That isn't to say that someone who reads as frequently as I do, but is in their 60's and has therefore been reading a lot longer than I have, might find the language easier to understand; they have had more reading practice than me. But I absolutely will not accept that younger generations are poorer readers because of their education. I did not like to see younger readers underestimated. You must allow for different reading tastes and abilities within all generations, as well as between them.
In summary, as much as I loved the language and am convinced that I may have read the best prose that I will ever read in my life, this book didn't rate too highly with me simply because I couldn't engage with the story. I did love though, that a discussion of this book became a discussion of the love of literature. There aren't many books out there that could do that.
What kind of read is this?
Extremely challenging. One of the most challenging reads I have ever had. Although it is thin, expect it to take a long time to get through. Beautiful language though.
Do I recommend this book?
Yes, if you truly love language and literary fiction.
Do I recommend that you buy this book?
No. Borrowing it at the library is absolutely fine. It is not a book I would like to re-read. Having said that, there were some people at the book club who said that as soon as they finished it, they started it again.
5 / 8
Good and worth reading if you have the opportunity, but there is no need to prioritise it (unless you absolutely love language and a challenge!).