‘Landscapes of mingled sensation and emotion’ – The Hanging Garden by Patrick White

The publication of The Hanging Garden comes a full twenty-two years after the death of the novel’s author, Patrick White, in 1990. It was unfinished at the time of White’s death, the first of what were intended (the publishers assume) to be three parts tracing the trajectory of a relationship formed between a young boy and girl who are evacuated during the Second World War to rural Australia. The boy – Gil Horsfall – and the girl – Eirene – both arrive having lost a parent: Gil’s mother has been killed in the Blitz in England, and Eirene’s father has been executed in a Greek prison as a Communist. The two are thrust into unknown surroundings, and navigate confused feelings towards each other from suspicion and hostility to some kind of companionship and implicit understanding.

The story itself isn’t what makes The Hanging Garden such a powerful work of writing; it is the quality and style of the prose in relation to the subject matter. White plunges, without preamble, into landscapes of mingled sensation and emotion, the description moving so fast it is difficult to read it without feeling disoriented. All of this is powerfully evocative of the experience of childhood, but also of displacement and loss, and the struggle of blank and Eirene to situate themselves in their shifting lives.

As through the eyes of a child, the world as White describes it comes in and out of focus, is by turns comprehensible and utterly alien. Always, though, it is high energy. The description is vivid and evocative and sounds with a note of raw truth. For instance, in passages such as: ‘There was a smell of weed and shellfish as the sea sucked at slimy woodwork underpinning the world of human traffic’, the richness of the scene is captured perfectly, sound, smell, texture and image are all evoked. The effect is of deliberate and sustained over-stimulation rather than lack of control at any point. The prose is wild and yet each word feels carefully selected.

Supposing the White specialists who brought The Hanging Garden to publication are correct and the manuscript in it’s current form was intended to be one of three, then it’s a shame that readers will never know where White would have taken the two characters next. However, the novel has no problem standing alone and doesn’t feel incomplete. This is a work of true beauty and craftsmanship.

Any Cop?: The prose is wild and dizzying at points, which makes for a heady and thrilling read, which will bring all of your senses into play. This is a rare quality to find, and will be appreciated by anyone with a love of language and the written word.

Felix McNulty

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