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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Happy Valley

by
Patrick White


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Happy Valley



Title: Happy Valley
Author: Patrick White
Genre: Novel
Written: 1939
Length: 412 pages
Availability: Happy Valley - US
Happy Valley - UK
Happy Valley - Canada
Happy Valley - India
  • With an Introduction by Peter Craven

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Our Assessment:

B+ : atmospheric if near-claustrophobic locale-study

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 1/9/2012 Delia Falconer
The Guardian . 19/12/2012 Thomas Keneally
Sunday Times . 12/2/1939 Ralph Straus
Sydney Morning Herald . 25/8/2012 Andrew Riemer
The Times . 10/3/1939 J.S.
TLS . 11/2/1939 Leonora Eyles
TLS . 25/1/2013 Dan Gunn


  From the Reviews:
  • "Happy Valley is the invocation of a small town and the inner thoughts of its inhabitants, high and low. (...) What's least recognisably like the White we've come to know in this novel is the self-conscious, mannered omniscient narration. (...) This reminds us that his greatest theme was sublimation. It was the human condition to have to put desire into other things because human relationships ultimately were disappointing. This is the fate of almost every character in Happy Valley. And it's this fascination with displaced love, more than any thrall to modernism, that powered the ecstatic materialism of White's writing." - Delia Falconer, The Australian

  • "Let me rush to say that White's skill is to make these characters, anguished as they are, engrossing. The book has a refined trap of a plot, by which the venal are cast down and the noble thwarted in their escape attempts, and cast back on a different kind of nobility. The novel stands up well in the high company of its later brethren. It prefigures the greatness to come, and is a more adventurously wrought than many of our own age." - Thomas Keneally, The Guardian

  • "I do not suppose Happy Valley will be to the taste of the average reader, but it is an unusual and provocative piece of work. Alternately, it compels admiration and rouses up irritation. Its story is thin, but an impression is left. Mr. White can write (.....) It is a grimly inevitable tragedy, and yet not nearly so depressing as you might imagine (.....) I have said that his story is thin, but it is not unsatisfactory" - Ralph Straus, Sunday Times

  • "This handsome new edition confirms the novel's verve and energy, though the passage of time has highlighted patches of clumsy diction and construction in ways that didn't seem quite so obvious 20 or 30 years ago." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Mr. White is the victim as well as the student of other masters, from whom he has accepted both lessons and mannerisms. From time to time, in a novel of great promise, one suspects that the course of life in this township is being manipulated to fit a stranger's philosophy, and sometimes the influences are more overt still." - J.S., The Times

  • "Mr. White's first novel is a study in boredom. (...) Mr. White moulds his style Mr. James Joyce -- which may be an advantage or not; in spite of the incomprehensibility of many of his pages, we get a vivid picture of characters and background. The book is depressing to a degree almost unbearable" - Leonora Eyles, Times Literary Supplement

  • "As a novel of passions barely contained by small-town life, Happy Valley is, despite its numerous infelicities, a tour de force. As an addition to a canon of 1930s fiction in which highly self-conscious modernist literary techniques were being put to service, it is at the very least intriguing. And as a precursor to the fully realized White novels of the postwar period, it is never less than fascinating." - Dan Gunn, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Happy Valley is set in the eponymous Australian locale, extending: "more or less from Moorang to Kambala", not quite in the middle of nowhere, but certainly an isolated, distant-feeling place. There used to be gold at Kambala, but no longer; there's little activity or bustle hereabouts any longer. It's not particularly inviting either, not in the opening pages, set in deepest winter, where Happy Valley is already introduced as colder: "than anywhere else in the world" (nor also later, in summer, when there's oppressive, deadening heat).
       Happy Valley begins with Dr.Oliver Halliday attending to a woman in labor; its concluding scenes are determined by two unexpected deaths -- one of which literally stops Halliday in his tracks, preventing an attempted escape from Happy Valley. But the arc of the novel isn't one that moves from hopeful beginnings to dire ends; rather, White's scene is, if not uniformly dismal, so at least consistently only briefly suggesting hope before that is dashed. The labor is a protracted, arduous one, the outcome already foreshadowing much that will be described in Happy Valley: no surprise, the place is not quite so happy.
       This is a small-town novel, following and focusing on the fates of several of its families and inhabitants. It is a place where: "Nothing much appeared to happen besides, though a lot was really happening all the time". And, as Halliday eventually concludes:

I have learnt this, he felt, that it is pitiable, this Happy Valley, even in its violence that at first you thought deliberately destructive and cruel there is a human core that makes you overflow with pity for it.
       There is a fairly large cast of characters, whose lives and fates are -- often surprisingly -- intertwined. There's Dr.Halliday and his family -- wife Hilda and their two sons, Rodney, nine when the novel starts, and four-year-old George. Rodney doesn't fit in well at the dismal local school, and the Hallidays have ambitions of moving on, with Rodney to go to school in Sydney. There's hope of being able to get a new practice elsewhere -- anywhere else, seems the near-desperate hope, though Halliday at least has a plan.
       There's Alys Browne, who managed a bit of an escape -- "Father, I am going to Sydney", she announced when she was fifteen, and she went, albeit only to a convent to learn piano and needlework. She's drifted back to Happy Valley, where she lives alone, still unsure of what to do with her life. For now she gives piano lessons, dreaming of an escape to California. She has some money, which she invests with another local, hoping the gains she expects to realize will facilitate her moving on. (Readers can quickly guess how, in Happy Valley, speculative investments fare .....) She also is drawn to Halliday .....
       Young Rodney befriends an older girl, part-Chinese thirteen year-old Margaret Quong (who takes lessons from Alys), who is in her own way a mis-fit in this town. Margaret understands that Rodney's fantasies are still childish ones, but she goes along with some of them. Reality, of course, is harsher, as Margaret sees her mother wallowing in the misery of what she considers her one great mistake -- getting pregnant by a Chinaman (the result of which is Margaret).
       There are the Furlows -- long-established on their property and in society. As White describes the father:
     Mr Furlow hadn't a mind, only a mutual understanding between a number of almost dormant instincts.
       At least Mrs. Furlow has ground for enthusiasm, eagerly watching their daughter Sidney being courted, excited about the excellent match she will make with Roger Kemble -- "which would provide through marriage the topmost pinnacle". The wilful nineteen year-old, however, has other ideas, annoyed by Roger's fawning and the sense that this is the natural order of things and the way her life is meant to unfold. She, at least, takes matters into her own hands -- throwing away her life (at least the life her mother imagined) in first one and then a second, very dramatic way.
       Many significant choices are made by the characters, though often the outcome is not immediate or necessarily the expected one. Larger ambitions remain looked forward to but also distant, as in the protracted wait by the Hallidays for an opportunity to move on -- or, more sentimentally (and echoing Chekhov's three sisters' cries of: "Moscow !'), Alys' observation: "All the time we have been going to America". One character does choose the most extreme act -- murder -- yet other actions (and reactions) are equally life-changing.
       Communication remains difficult for many of the characters, flummoxed in their attempts to articulate and convey their needs and desires: this is a novel which shows, again and again: "the inarticulation of words". As Halliday recognizes about his own marriage:
It is like this with Hilda. I have never spoken to Hilda using anything but the outer convention of words. We look at each other, hoping for something that does not come
       Ultimately, so often:
Words were no words, were a mouth open stupidly.
       A first novel, Happy Valley is also an experimental one, a writer still getting his bearings on the page and working out what he is capable of. Influences of the times -- the writing of the times (from Joyce on down), rather than actual events, which hardly figure at all in what is a largely timeless-feeling work -- are evident throughout, and White doesn't attach himself completely to any specific style yet. It doesn't all work, but a lot works remarkably well: this is a very good character- and locale-study, and for a novel that drifts so much among its stories, surprisingly gripping.
       Long out of print, Happy Valley deserves contemporary readers, too. It is not peak-White -- towering as those peaks are -- but it is a very fine work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 December 2013

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Links:

Happy Valley: Reviews: Patrick White: Other books by Patrick White under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Patrick White (1912-1990), Australian author. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. Schooled in England (at Cheltenham, and King's College, Cambridge). His first novel Happy Valley was published in 1939. Worked for R.A.F Intelligence during WWII, after which he returned to Australia.

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© 2013 the complete review

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