First published 1939, reprinted by Text Classics 2012 | Fiction Australian Author
Intriguingly, Patrick White didn’t allow his first novel, Happy Valley, to be reprinted during his lifetime, after its initial run in 1939. Perhaps this is why it’s not a title that springs to mind among the Nobel laureate’s classics, despite winning the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society at the time.
But really, it should.
I recently read it when a friend gifted me a copy as he knew I‘d grown up near the NSW Snowy Mountains. This is the setting for the fictional township of Happy Valley, White drawing literary inspiration from his experiences as a jackaroo at Bolaro, near Adaminaby, in the early 1930s.
Despite the 85 years that have elapsed since its creation, the universally human themes explored by White - of secrets, hopes, frustrations, failures and fears, amplified in the fish-tank of a small country town - ensures the novel’s contemporary relevance (although what does date it is its racist tropes, sadly reflective of the time.)
White constructs a remarkably elaborate trap of a plot around a handful of local townsfolk, whose ordinary lives intersect in unexpected and quite dramatic ways. It’s woven together with an almost claustrophobically malevolent undercurrent, because, of course, Happy Valley is anything but happy for most of its occupants.
The local doctor sums the town up in the opening pages as a “slow festering sore of painfully little intrigue”, his musings shared as we find him at the centre of one of many unsettlingly memorable scenes throughout the novel - attending to the difficult delivery of the publican’s wife‘s first baby, in the monstrously cold winter. The child was born dead, “a red, motionless phenomenon”.
So sets the novel's sombre tone, as narration slips from one key character to the next, written from a kind of roving point of view, allowing us a glimpse of the psychosocial dynamics at play, revealing each character’s inner thoughts and interrelationships. White’s narration often slides into the character’s stream of consciousness – in much the same way as our own minds wander, some of White’s sentences hang, unfinished, or in complete disarray, reflecting the characters’ mental states. It sometimes lends the novel a bit of a hallucinogenic feel.
Some aspects of characterisation verge on being overdone, but you’re left in no doubt about the polarity of human personalities – from Clem Hagan the misogynistic overseer, to Vic Moriarty the bored wife of the schoolteacher, to Amy Quong the pragmatic local store owner, to Old Man Furlow the rich landowner. The growing suspense as the plot strands tie together, the way White packs so much richness into sparsely worded lines, and the evocation of the distinctly small-town Australia vibe, make this a masterful novel.
Without doubt, Happy Valley is one of the originals in the Aussie bush noir genre.