Shirley Hazzard's unsentimental style increases the power of the novel's predominant themes of love, loss, journeys and memories
Bay of Noon
Shirley Hazzard is the author of the acclaimed novel The Transit of Venus, which won The National Book Critics Circle Award in 1981. Hazzard's novel The Bay of Noon was originally published in 1970 and later went out of print. Virago Press have recently released a new edition with Turner's painting "View of Naples" displayed on the cover, courtesy of London's Tate Gallery.
A military plane crashed that winter on Mount Vesuvius. The plane had taken off from Naples in fog; some hours afterwards it was reported missing. The search went on for hundreds of miles around - over the Ionian Sea, and at Catania, at Catanzaro. Two days later, when the fog lifted, we could see the wreck quite clearly against the snow-streaked cone of the volcano, overlooking the airfield from which it had set out. No one had thought of looking close to home.
The Bay of Noon opens on this ominous note with the memory of a plane accident fifteen years earlier. The female protagonist, Jenny, narrates how, fleeing from a family drama in post-war London, she travels to Italy to translate documents and perform clerical duties at the large NATO establishment based at Bagnoli, on the outskirts of Naples.
Jenny is not like the other English girls working at the base. As a child she was shipped out to Cape Town to escape the Blitz, returning to England only after the war. Naples in the late 1940s is also a casualty of war, but has survived despite its ravages.
Jenny carries a letter of introduction written by a casual acquaintance in London. She arranges to meet the beautiful and mysterious writer, Signorina Gioconda, who lives with her cat, Iocasta, in a section of the old family palazzo on San Biagio dei Librai, the street that traversed the city's nucleus in classical times.
A close and perhaps unlikely friendship develops between the lonely young Englishwoman and the vital, dark-eyed Neapolitan. Through her new friend, Jenny encounters the famous Roman film director Gianni, who is Gioconda's lover, and through her work she makes the acquaintance of Justin, an aloof Scottish marine biologist to whom she finds herself strangely drawn. She begins to taste life as she would never have known it in England Ö
What I particularly remember is this. Many of the women had taken off their sandals, kicking them away to the edge of the terrace, and were dancing on bare brown feet - this and the savage reverberations of the music contrasting violently with the smooth lips and elegant dresses, arched eyebrows and immaculate hair. As we danced, a glass was swept from one of the little tables, by the swirl of a skirt or a shawl, and smashed on the tiles, the fragments going everywhere, indistinguishable from the coloured tesselations. No one stopped. No one even looked down. The dancers spun back and forth under the lanterns and the bare feet went flying in and out among the spikes of glass.
As events unfold, the ties developing between these four complicated characters become intricate and tangled, giving the reader insight into a place where friendship, intimacy and betrayal converge.
The Bay of Noon's highly structured plot evolves slowly, but gathers considerable momentum in the final chapters. The author writes with the assurance of one to whom the Neapolitan landscape and its inhabitants are familiar. She skilfully describes the complex emotional nuances and fragile dynamics of personal relationships with the penetrating eye and precise prose of a seasoned observer. Shirley Hazzard is marvellously in control of her material and has a subtle and unsentimental style, which increases the power of the novel's predominant themes of love, loss, journeys and memories.
We take our bearings from the wrong landmark, wish that when young we had studied the stars; name the flowers for ourselves and the deserts after others. When the territory is charted, its eventual aspect may be quite other than what was hoped for. One can only say, it will be a whole - a region from which a few features, not necessarily those that seemed prominent at the start, will stand out in clear colours. Not to direct, but to solace us; not to fix our positions, but to show us how we came.
Deeply sad and wise, The Bay of Noon is an incisive and illuminating work of fiction deserving a place on our bookshelves. It will assuredly absorb and give pleasure to new generations of readers.
LitNet: 12 July 2005
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