Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 15, 2009

The Evening of the Holiday (1966), by Shirley Hazzard

evening-of-the-holidayShirley Hazzard is the acclaimed author of The Great Fire, which was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction; shortlisted for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and won the 2003 American National Book Award for fiction and subsequently the 2004 Miles Franklin Award.  I am ashamed to realise that it took an American award for me to discover this very fine writer and her small but very interesting body of work.

The Evening of the Holiday is an enchanting book.  Set in Tuscany, it brings back memories of the glorious landscape:

Endless golden hills were posted with clusters or straight lines of black cypresses and sometimes, magnificently, with one splendid tree.  A handful of cooperative farmhouses, painted white, faced them on an approaching hillside, but the few other buildings were isolated, ancient and of grey stone.  From the fields the scents were of the dry red earh and the cut grain and of rosemary.  (p40)

But this, Hazzard’s first novel, is not a romantic Frances Mayes’ nostalgia trip. This is the sharply observed story of a love affair between English-Italian Sophie, and Tancredi, a sophisticated Italian whose wife has left him.  It traverses their hesitations, their passion and the inevitable end of the affair with clear insight.

Today, for the first time, he had almost expected, almost wished for, some disappointment – to find her, perhaps, more meagre, more pallid, diminished in his eyes like a cherished place revisited after an absence.  Instead, of course, she had been disturbingly beautiful, dishearteningly pleased to see him.  Glancing into her smiling, upturned face as he leaned down to kiss her, he had found it incredible that this woman had ever looked at him in any other way.  She had once told him – and he longed to remind her of it – that their association was a threat to her; at one time, he knew, she had considered him unreliable and vain.  He could scarcely believe that she had ever said such a thing, ever had a critical opinion of him.  That time when she coolly judged him now presented itself to him as a time of happiness.

Her love is perfect, he thought.  What one always hears about – perfect love.  Then he told himself, with relief and a certain satisfaction: I am not worthy of that.  Not up to it at all.  I am an ordinary person – a fallible, inconsistent, mortal man.  Each adjective was successvely pleasant to him, and he said them over in his head. (p109)

This is extraordinary prescience about human affairs for a writer aged only 35 when this book was published in 1966. Hazzard goes on to record Tancredi’s highly nuanced relief that Sophie understands that they have no future:

The astonishment Tancredi felt at being thus relieved in an instant of any necessity to describe their position had nothing to do with a sense of deliverance – for by demolishing his belief in her awareness of their dilemma, she immediately brought into focus the dilemma itself, and he was faced not with discussion of the thing but with the thing itself.  Her felt a perverse disappointment that his concept of her love as an ideal love, something intact and indifferent to everything but its object, had turned out to be fictitious and that she was after all touched bvy the same earthly questions as himself.  (p112)

It is hard not to smile when Hazzard goes on to describe Tancredi’s discovery that Sophie has private thoughts that may be different to his perception of them:

But what was strangest of all to him, and most interesting, was the revelation that she had in reserve these thoughts, of which he could have no knowledge; that her ideas might be at variance with his assessment of them just when he was convinced he understood them best. (p112)

Hazzard was born in Australia in 1931 but she lives in the USA.  It took her 20 years to write The Great Fire, and she is now nearing 80.  One can only hope that she has time to write more.

Author: Shirley Hazzard
Title: The Evening of the Holiday
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group, 2006
ISBN: 9781844082179
Source: personal copy



  1. I still have this to look forward to, so was interested to read your review.

    I both enjoyed and was impressed by The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire, and look forward to reading Hazzard’s regrettably small body of work. Like you say, fingers crossed there is more coming!


  2. The book is beautifully written but depressingly feeble. The line “What could be worse than this?” as the lovers end their affair seems to sum up the completely self centred yet lifeless characters Tancredi and Sophie.


  3. Hello Anne,
    Perhaps because I couldn’t help visualising Timothy Spall as Tancredi I didn’t feel he was lifeless LOL


  4. […] is not a prolific writer and it is less than a year since I read The Evening of the Holiday (see my review here).  I hoard books by my favourite writers, saving them up for when I don’t feel like […]


  5. I read The Transit of Venus, People in Glass Houses and the The Great Fire years later as it took Hazzard a long time to complete it apparently. Really loved her writing. Then saw a list of books that Shirley Hazzard was on this year. The Lost Man Booker. I read The Bay of Noon, set in Naples and once again completely loved it. It sounds similar to The Evening of the Holiday which I look forward to reading when I lessen the pile on my bedside table (which by the way Lisa, includes Old Filth, bought in a bookshop in Tanunda last month before I mentioned Jane Gardam’s coming-of-age novels …. sorry, off on tangent!)


  6. *chuckle* Margaret, I can see that TBR groaning now!


  7. […] The Evening of the Holiday (1966) (See my review) […]


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