Grace reads The Hanging Garden by Patrick White

Words by Grace McCarter

Published on June 17, 2012


Sometimes, a few minutes after experiencing that glorious feeling that comes with finishing a good book, I will find myself wondering how much of what I’ve just read is truly the author’s creation, and how much was altered by someone else during the editorial process.

1973 Nobel Laureate Patrick White has polarised readers in Australia, with many finding his prose inaccessible and unyielding. Over 20 years after his death, one of the three unpublished manuscripts found among his papers has surfaced, after being sold to the National Library by his agent. After reading interviews with White scholar and biographer David Marr about The Hanging Garden, I can’t help but feel that the unmediated publication of what is essentially a formidably brilliant handwritten draft is a refreshing and un-pretentious move, within the contentious realm of post-humous novel publication.

In The Hanging Garden, a Greek-Australian girl called Eirene, and a boy called Gilbert from England are brought to a house in Sydney harbour’s north shore to be sheltered from WWII. The two form a bond as they face a life of abandonment together in the face of the foreign and unfamiliar.

The elegance of White’s signature shifting of narrative vantage points throughout the piece will delight old readers, and enthral first-timers. The effortless transitions between first, second and third person create that odd, but deeply satisfying stream-of-consciousness feel that makes all of White’s work so moving and intense. His use of subtle humour through the actions of his young characters is delicate and endearing, and his control over the voices of these young characters nothing short of startling. While sometimes whimsical, White’s descriptions are consistently so material and palatable that you want to snap a chunk off and eat it. The ever-changing natures of the two children are both mirrored and framed beautifully in the main setting of the piece: the tangled, unpredictable back garden of their carer, Mrs. Bulpit. The struggle for power between Eirene and Gilbert is particularly excruciating when they are forced to sleep in the same room, and a sexually charged layer is laid painstakingly onto their already complex relationship. In 224 compelling pages, we are presented with a delectable, intriguing window into their lives.

Ostensibly the first section of a larger, three-part novel, The Hanging Garden reads like a novella, with a somewhat unsettled ending. However, I didn’t feel the desire to know what happened next. The sensuality, intensity and sheer vision of this stand-alone work was almost enough, although I was left somehow with a hunch as to where the paths of the two children would inevitably lead, after their separation at the close of the novel. The Hanging Garden is laden with clashes between the old and the new, as well as theses of transcendence, materialism, the metaphysical, and ideas of ‘home’. The beautifully plain, un-clouded prose makes me quiver at how wonderful these parts would have been, should White have had the time to complete them.