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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Hanging Garden

Patrick White

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To purchase The Hanging Garden

Title: The Hanging Garden
Author: Patrick White
Genre: Novel
Written: (2012)
Length: 225 pages
Availability: The Hanging Garden - US
The Hanging Garden - UK
The Hanging Garden - Canada
The Hanging Garden - India
  • Posthumously published, The Hanging Garden was written in 1981; the text is likely the first third of the planned but unfinished work
  • With an Afterword by David Marr
  • "The Hanging Garden has been transcribed from Patrick White's handwritten manuscript and, in the absence of a living author to consult, not edited." (Three cheers for those (non-)editors; may others learn from their admirable restraint !)

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Our Assessment:

A- : an incomplete work, but remarkably rich

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Australian Book Review . 4/2012 Peter Conrad
The Monthly A 4/2012 Michelle de Kretser
The NY Rev. of Books . 7/11/2013 J.M.Coetzee
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/5/2013 John Sutherland
The Spectator . 31/3/2012 R. Davenport-Hines
Sunday Times . 8/4/2012 Robert Macfarlane
Sydney Morning Herald A 31/3/2012 Jane Gleeson-White
The Times . 24/3/2012 Paul Dunn
TLS . 15/6/2012 James Hopkin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Its shortcomings notwithstanding, The Hanging Garden returns fiction to greatness. Reading it brings exhilaration, tinged with dismay at our diminished expectations of the literary novel." - Michelle de Kretser, The Monthly

  • "Although it is only a draft, the creative intelligence behind the prose is as intense and the characterization as deft as anywhere in White. The fragment, constituting the first third of the novel, is largely self-contained. All that is lacking is a sense of where the action is leading, what all the preparation is preparatory to." - J.M.Coetzee, The New York Review of Books

  • "White’s masterpiece, Voss, is a fable about the exploration of Australia’s impenetrable outback. The Hanging Garden is different and, for lovers of White’s work, hugely exciting. It depicts, with extraordinary delicacy, what goes on at that moment in life when the young mind is beginning to “make sense” of sensation. It is, I think, something entirely new in his work. (...) It would, one can confidently say, have been a great Australian novel. Even as it stands, The Hanging Garden is a novel for our time" - John Sutherland, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Hanging Garden shows White’s prose at its least baroque. The surviving fragment makes a coherent and polished read, shrewd and tender about its two protagonists, although soiled by rancorous, unforgiving disgust at the failed humanity of the minor characters. (...) It will interest the little clan of White’s dedicated admirers." - Richard Davenport-Hines, The Spectator

  • "What we have between these green covers is an unfinished, unedited sketch. It is also the late, virtuosic performance of a master. Here is White conjuring in 200 pages one of the most vivid, erotically charged, emotionally wrenching works of fiction I've read this century." - Jane Gleeson-White, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "The Hanging Garden may be the first part of a novel but it works as a self-sufficient novella, and a fine one at that." - James Hopkin, 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:

       Patrick White began The Hanging Garden in 1981 but did not complete the work; the text as published (posthumously, in 2012) is a self-contained section -- apparently the first third of the planned novel. Digging out manuscripts from authors' drawers and estates is often a dubious proposition, but the case for The Hanging Garden seems more justifiable than most. Most significantly, while still a draft, the text is remarkably polished: in editing, White might well have elaborated on parts of the narrative (which does, in part, have a quite clipped feel), but it nonetheless already reads remarkably well and could, almost entirely, pass for a finished work.
       Admirably too -- and in contrast to what happens to most posthumously published manuscripts -- there was apparently essentially no editorial interference with what White wrote: a note points out: "The Hanging Garden has been transcribed from Patrick White's handwritten manuscript and, in the absence of a living author to consult, not edited." Admittedly, the manuscript lends itself to the hands-off approach more than most -- White seems to have been fastidious even with his works-in-progress -- but it's certainly worth noting that this part at least seems to be pretty much exactly how White wanted it. (See also David Marr's Afterword for more on the textual and publication history.)
       The story is set in the 1940s, in Neutral Bay, Australia, where Eirene Sklavos is brought by her mother as the war escalates in Europe. Gerry married a "Greek commo" who has since died in prison; she brings the child to safety back home in Australia (before herself returning to Europe) -- but not to her sister, Alison Lockhart, who insists her house full of boys is ill-equipped to accommodate a girl. Instead, Eirene is put up at the nearby Mrs. Bulpit's, who is already taking care of a boy about the same age, Gilbert Horsfall, sent here from England.
       The narrative unfolds from the perspectives of Eirene and Gilbert, with White frequently shifting from one angle to another as the story is related in the first, second, and third person. From Eirene's attempts at keeping a diary to the directness of the second-person approach as White describes what is happening to her ("The room she has got ready for you has started to become yours, not from any effort on your part, but simply by you being there") makes for a remarkable sense of intimacy. Much here is incredibly up-close-and-personal -- all the more effectively for being centered on the children, who are easily overlooked by adults who fail to notice what the children are apprehending.
       The Hanging Garden begins with Eirene being dropped off at Mrs. Bulpit's, her mother in essence abandoning her, after she has already lost her father. White's sensitive portrayal of what the child goes through is remarkable and utterly convincing, the mix of curiosity, bewilderment, and raw (but largely suppressed (or overwhelmed)) emotion acutely drawn. Despite the old adage, showing is not always superior to telling, but if one chooses that route then White's handling of Eirene here is indeed exemplary.
       Unrooted, Eirene looks for some hold, of course -- here in a place where even her name is unfixed. When she is already more established in Neutral Bay and news of her next great loss reaches her she suggests:

     'Eirene' is dead. I am Irene Ireen Reenie anything the Australian landscape dictates their voices expect.
       But she immediately adds:
Not altogether. Little bits of 'Eirene' are still flapping torn and bloody where they have been ground into the broken concrete strewn along the sea wall amongst the gulls' scribble little spurts of knowledge will always intrude on what others are babbling about and on what I have learned to learn from blackboard and textbook, memory will always be bloodier than pinpricks the cruel tango we can't resist in any of its movements in the bilious Alexandrian patisserie in Attic dust in mountain snow my mouth is watery with what I must live and already know.
       Eventually Eirene becomes, of necessity, somewhat closer to her aunt Alison (Allie), and makes friends with a girl at her new school, but it is Gilbert who the nearest thing to a hold she finds. The early sections of the novel, when they carefully feel one another out, are particularly impressive, as White captures childish uneasiness with change and the unknown exceptionally well. The confusions of adolescence complicate their relationship, but if there is anyone Eirene needs, it is Gil.
       Among Gilbert's suggestions, at one point, is: "Why don't we build something, Eirene" -- using her correct name, his words a statement, not a question -- but even as they collaborate on literally building their own structure they remain at some (though constantly shifting) remove, first as they try to adapt to their surroundings and each other and then as distance is imposed on them.
       The Hanging Garden is a story full of separations. Eirene's situation is one of instability, one traditional pillar of support after another (father, mother, guardian) pulled out from under her, yet also one in which adults at least take charge and (re)situate her, as necessary (though much of this is astonishingly casual -- "you know Mummy would like to adopt you", Trish Fermor-Jones tells her new close friend, for example). Eirene deals with all the turmoil in a childish way -- not naïve or immature, but merely in the only way she can, trying to work her way through the situations she is put in, adapting as best she can. Since even late on Trish observes: "you're so odd -- different I mean" it's clear that Eirene has adapted largely on her own terms and still does not really 'fit in', but White has convincingly presented her personal journey (in this narrative focused so closely on her, rather than how others might see her) -- even as he does not see it through to anywhere near the end.
       As Eirene matures, she becomes more self-aware; she also becomes aware of the dangers she faces -- including how: "it's easy to drift with the current". She also faces more obvious and immediate dangers, as when her uncle wants to force himself on her; sex (and sexual longing) is a complication that remains (just) at arm's length, but colors a great deal here (as is, of course, generally the case in adolescence).
       Late in her story Eirene says:
Transcendence is something I am never sure about in Australia.
       Uncertainty, of course, marks her entire passage through this book, from child to more mature teen, and transcendence surely is far too much to hope for; one imagines that if White had continued the book it is this notion, in particular, he would have pursued.
       The Hanging Garden is, clearly, incomplete. This text is, however, a largely self-contained section of that unfinished, larger work, and an often powerful and striking one at that. As almost always with White, the writing -- in its broadest sense -- is exceptional; it's amazing what he can do on the page. Remarkable, too, is White's perceptive and convincing portrayal of the two children at the heart of the story, and of Eirene, in particular.
       A haunting, impressive read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 May 2013

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The Hanging Garden: 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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