White of passage

YIPPEE, I've finally read a Patrick White novel all the way through. It feels as though I've completed a marathon. Now maybe I can forget about all those shameful times when I gave up halfway, or even right after the starter's gun.

Reading it didn't feel like a dutiful chore, an attempt to educate myself about our national literature. It felt easy. The story absorbed me, exhilarated me; I raced straight through, though there were also many moments when I paused and admired and thought. Was it me, reaching a belated readerly maturity? Or was it the book?

It was probably the book. Happy Valley is Patrick White's first novel, published in 1939, when he was almost 27. (He had trouble getting it published: one agent told him, ''People are writing in short sentences now.'') Until recently, it was also his least-known work. White disowned it and disallowed republication in his lifetime. You had to hunt pretty hard to find a copy.

Now Text has republished the book in its Classics series, there's no excuse not to give it a go. The odd thing is, it feels at once fresh - I'd never have guessed it was written 70-odd years ago - and familiar. I've read several novels such as this, both literary and commercial, written in recent years. They all make use of the classic territory of the soapie yarn: small Australian country towns that function like prisons.

In their different fashions the inhabitants yearn to escape, but they can never get away. Love affairs flourish and wither. Scandal blooms, tongues wag, rigid propriety and hypocrisy hold sway. And always, there are dark undercurrents of violence and abuse.

The difference is that most of these novels are historical. White was writing about contemporary life - it's said the novel was based on his time working as a jackaroo in south-eastern New South Wales. Another distinction is that even at this early stage of his career, he was clearly an assured and outstanding writer.

In no way is this a ''difficult'' book. The narrative pull is strong, the plot intriguing and sometimes startling, even melodramatic (and that's no bad thing here).

The characters draw you into their painful dilemmas, even if they are tawdry and ridiculous, even if you don't much like them. And White is daring for his time in entering the hearts and minds of Australians of Chinese ancestry. He makes intermittent use of a stream-of-consciousness technique that already had a venerable pedigree in the 1930s, but still feels fresh today. Later he condemned it as a cul-de-sac. Maybe it goes on a bit too much sometimes, but the book would be poorer without it.

It's not a perfect novel by any means. Like Dickens, White is famous for his female grotesques, but here I found some of them wobbling dangerously towards caricature. I also found it hard to believe in the final choices made by that staple of small-town fiction, the gorgeous, spoilt little rich girl who is used to getting her own way.

And yet Happy Valley - was ever there a better misnomer for such a thoroughly miserable town? - has stayed with me since I raced to the final page.

It has made me ready to tackle White's later work again and maybe this time complete the journey. If you have always kept White at a respectful but wary distance, read Happy Valley.

It's White at his most accessible, and would make a great TV series. Where has it been all these years?

janesullivan.sullivan9@gmail.com

The story White of passage first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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