Outback and beyond

Happy Valley, by Patrick White, Jonathan Cape, RRP£18.99, 407 pages

Patrick White’s books are often honoured more in the attempt than the completion. The award of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature may have cemented his reputation as Australia’s pre-eminent novelist, albeit one born in London, educated at Cambridge and often ambivalent about his nation. But readerly love has been harder to attain.

Tackling White sometimes feels like a long trudge through the outback, the subject of his epic, Voss (1957). His work is full of moments of transcendent beauty but the density of his prose, its detours into myth and symbolism, can be oppressive, as is his unforgiving view of human fallibility. For all his ability to be waspishly amusing, this is an author who can be harsh company.

The reissue of White’s little-known first book, Happy Valley, is intriguing because it allows us to strip away the grumpy old man reputation, and see a young writer struggling with themes that would possess him for the rest of his life.

When he published the novel in 1939, White was 27, and had been working on a sheep station in southeast Australia. The experience strongly influenced this portrait of small-town life. Indeed, White never allowed it to be reprinted in his lifetime, fearful of libel action from a family of Chinese store-owners thinly disguised within its pages.

One suspects they were simply the most obvious of potential litigants. Almost nobody in this book comes up smelling of roses. Oliver Halliday, the town’s doctor, escapes from a stale marriage in the arms of the local piano teacher. Farm manager Clem Hagan casts a reptilian eye over Happy Valley’s women. Sidney Furlow, daughter of what passes for aristocracy in this fly-bitten outpost, has been to finishing school in Sydney, where “Miss Cortine prepared her girls for life with a course of tea pouring and polite adultery.” Back home, Sidney wields her sexuality like a weapon.

For 300 pages, their stories and those of other townsfolk interweave in a symphony of desire and dissatisfaction before violence erupts.

It doesn’t require 73 years’ hindsight to realise that this is a remarkable debut. Happy Valley contains some powerful writing, particularly in the extended account of a race-day dance, which swoops cinematically between characters, pulsating with feverish energy and pushing the book towards its climax: “Music launched out, struck back deviously, got beneath the senses, and you danced, you danced”.

Less successful, however, are White’s attempts to assimilate the influences around him. Joycean stream-of-consciousness offers diminishing returns, and the debts to DH Lawrence – quivering horses’ rumps and limp snakes – are hard to take seriously now. Time and fashion can be cruel.

Not as cruel, though, as White can be. He tries to embrace his characters’ hopes and fears but his default attitude in this book is weary disgust at human nature in general and backwoods life in particular. Nowhere is this sourness more evident than in the depiction of Happy Valley’s women, who tend to be depicted as vain, silly or sexually manipulative.

Sometimes they are all three, such as in the case of the schoolmaster’s wife, Vic Moriarty, “a pink seal basking on a rock of complacency”. These failures of generosity, rather than failures of technique, are Happy Valley’s great stumbling points. As a calling card, however, it’s starkly impressive.

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