Book Review: The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard

bay of noon shirley hazzard Book Review: The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard

I was not expecting, in my rambles through the bookshops of Buenos Aires, to come across much in the way of Australian writing, let alone a crumpled Penguin edition of a 1970s modern classic by Shirley Hazzard. I picked up this slim volume to keep me occupied whilst my husband snoozed in the small plazas wed settle into after a day of walking, or to read in snatches between tango classes, and found myself caught up not so much in a story, for to be honest there isnt much of one here, but in a setting that all but seethes off the pages, and in piecing together the fumblingly vague snatches of the characters who exist somewhere between the gauntness of memory and the shadow cast by the blinding Neapolitan sun.

A quiet account of the in-between, unsettled experience of a young womans employer-mandated sojourn in Naples,'The Bay of Noon is at times'excruciatingly bland and at times savagely incisive, but in Hazzards accomplished hands its never less than captivating. Sent to Italy to participate in the translation of a document described only as The Report, protagonist Jenny is as insipid as her circumstances might suggest, floating along in her life like so much flotsam. Despite her position, its suggested that Jennys Italian is little more than rudimentary to begin with, and her social mores are certainly lacking: her daily interactions rarely extend beyond the baseless demands of her boss and awkward semi-flirtatious chitchat with a flatmate characterised faintly as the Scotsman.

But when Jenny finds herself idly beginning, in that most contrived way possibleby lettera friendship with the manic author Gioconda, her laissez faire approach to life is suddenly complicated. Gioconda is a woman of passionate extremes, and Jenny gradually finds herself mired in the messiness of Giocondas love affair with the chauvinist Gianni, whose presence unleashes ambivalence in both women. The scope of Jennys life has suddenly expanded well beyond the walls she has built around it, and soon its various elements, which she has always kept, out of laziness more than anything else, separate, threaten to come together in a way that promises to upset the disinterested balance of Jennys life.

The novel does not follow a plot, per se: its realist in tone, perhaps so hyper-realist that it seems at times almost dream-like. Jenny recounts her interactions through the vague prism of her memory, which dredges up feelings and sensations more than the fully-realised picture we might expect, and its these disconnected elements that the reader has to use to piece together the patchwork of the whole, colouring it inevitably with the wash of interpretation and prejudice. Gianni, in particular, falls prey to this: a character who is overt in every way, Jenny remembers a burst of munificence here, a moment of cruelty there, and the result is something jagged and brutal, evoking for me at least Williamss Stanley Kowalski. The only character that doesnt seem to suffer from this quilt-like approach is that of the city, which is so exquisitely and firmly rendered that its the only constant in a novel inhabited by ghosts.

The Bay of Noon'is not an easy read, nor is it a predictable one, but its abloom with a profusion of exquisite turns of phrase and astonishingly delicate nuance, and its this prose-level revelry that had me utterly captive; also in its favour is an approach to character recalling two of my favourite authors: F Scott Fitzgerald and Salley Vickers, the latter whom I suspect may call Hazzard an influence.

Rating: ????? (superb)

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