In Certain Circles

Elizabeth Harrower

In Certain Circles
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In Certain Circles

Elizabeth Harrower

Longlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Zoe Howard is seventeen when her brother, Russell, introduces her to Stephen Quayle. Aloof and harsh, Stephen is unlike anyone she has ever met, ‘a weird, irascible character out of some dense Russian novel’. His sister, Anna, is shy and thoughtful, ‘a little orphan’. Zoe and Russell, Stephen and Anna: they may come from different social worlds but all four will spend their lives moving in and out of each other’s shadow.

Set amid the lush gardens and grand stone houses that line the north side of Sydney Harbour, In Certain Circles is an intense psychological drama about family and love, tyranny and freedom.


After receiving a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship in 1968, Elizabeth Harrower said she felt ‘obliged to write’ and the product was In Certain Circles, her last novel. It was accepted for publication but she subsequently withdrew the manuscript. Harrower defended this decision by saying that she felt ‘pressed into applying for a grant’ and as a result the book ‘was not me, it was forced labour … I think it would have disappointed people.’ The Text Classics series have recently reprinted three of her four published novels, resurrecting Harrower as an Australian novelist of extraordinary talent.

Like The Watch Tower, Harrower’s 1966 novel, the focus of this work is on two women trapped by the circumstances of their births, and later by the men in their lives. The difference here is that one of the women, Zoe, is from a wealthy, well-known family while the other, Anna, is an impoverished orphan. The men are the two women’s brothers. Zoe’s brother befriends Anna’s brother and introduces the orphaned siblings to the world of Sydney’s North Shore socialites. These men are more complex than the monstrous Felix from The Watch Tower, although they are perhaps not as memorable. Harrower’s spare prose is best read with careful concentration; it’s easy to miss a brilliant observation or original turn of phrase.

One wonders why Harrower has changed her mind about the merits of the novel and it would be interesting to know what (if any) changes she has since made to the manuscript. This edition of In Certain Circles is beautifully produced in hardback, and is worth reading for the excitement of discovering an Australian literary classic – if only to make up your own mind about whether you think it should have been published in 1971, now, or perhaps not at all.

Kara Nicholson works as a bookseller at Carlton.

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