Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 31, 2011

The Legacy, by Kirsten Tranter

The Legacy

Miles Franklin c1940 (Source: Wikipedia)

The Legacy,  by Kirsten Tranter, was longlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin. It’s an accomplished debut novel in many ways, but it failed to engage me in a sustained way.  I read about 50 pages of it, put it aside, and forgot about it until I realised it would soon be due back at the library.  And then I had to start again because I couldn’t remember what it was about.

Like Henry James’ A Portrait of a Lady, the novel from which the plot is derived, it’s more of a meditation than a page-turner, whatever the publisher’s blurb might imply.   There is a mystery, but the novel takes its own good time to reveal even that Ingrid’s disappearance is enigmatic.  Tranter takes a long time to set its scenes, playing out sparse clues with dialogue and the narrator’s introspection.  There’s a lot about interior settings, the timbre of voices, the clothes people wear, their posture and stance, and their fatuous activities.

Grey and Fleur were standing together in a smaller room just beyond the main space of the gallery, through an archway that was half closed off by a heavy black curtain.  It was my only glimpse of the two of them together, a short, silent tableau.  Grey stood with his hands on his hips, pushing his jacket to the sides, and Fleur was half-turned away from him,  arms folded, her shoulders a little hunched over.  She was wearing black pants and sneakers and a long-sleeved shirt with some kind of colourful design on it, letters and pictures, and a heavy red cardigan.  Grey’s stance was tense and exasperated.  Fleur tossed her hair back over her shoulder with one hand in a petulant gesture.

Someone walked by carrying a tray arranged with plastic cups of wine.  The room was filled with men and women dressed expensively in dark clothes.  One woman trailed peacock feathers from her gathered black hair.  The woman from the Sargent-like painting materialised in front of me, dressed in a gown almost identical to the one in the painting, pointed shoes on her white feet.  She stood there with a drink in one hand listening to a grey-haired man in black.  He gestured to the painting closest to them.  I wanted to hear her voice.  The man kept talking.  The woman laughed at something he said, a giggle, high-pitched and tinkling.  She started talking and her voice wasn’t how I’d expected at all, but high and breathy, a girl’s voice.  It felt disappointing.  I took a cup of white wine from a tray that paused at my side. (p 264-5)

None of this goes anywhere.  We don’t find out what the argument was about, we don’t learn anything more about the woman with the girly voice. This is just padding.  An editor could usefully have expunged nearly all of this and other tedious sequences like it, to focus the meditation on the things that matter in the novel, not irrelevant observations to hammer the point that Julia spends a lot of time observing other people instead of living a life of her own.  Truth be told, if not for the blurb declaring that there is a mystery with lies and deception to look forward to, I might not have progressed further…

There is an interesting idea at the heart of this novel but it’s swamped diverted by too much detail about the central character’s obsessive and ultimately inconclusive love life, her doubts and anxieties, and her observations of everyone else’s behaviour whether relevant to the story or not.  Obsessive personalities can be interesting but work best in literature when they are hooked to some kind of motif, as with Kien and his books in Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-fe (see my review) or the characters in Henry Handel Richardson’s  Maurice Guest where the musical city of Leipzig lends itself to obsession (see my review).   At 438 pages The Legacy is much too long to sustain Julia’s navel-gazing – unless that’s your kind of book, I guess, and clearly the Miles Franklin judges liked it well enough.  It was also shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and for the ABIA shortlist for Literary Fiction, so I think I’m well-and-truly out-of-step with critical response to the novel.

There’s an interesting review at MelbArts but I couldn’t work out whether Peter Craven liked it or not.

Kirsten Tranter blogs here.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Kirsten Tranter
Title: The Legacy
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins) 2010
ISBN: 9780732290801
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library.

Availability:
Fishpond The Legacy


Responses

  1. The problem with authors who are inspired to imitate Henry James is that they usually turn out to not be Henry James. That certainly seems to be the case here.

    While I don’t know the composition of the juries for the prizes that you mention, I sometimes wonder whether juries featuring a number of authors (or literary academics) don’t get impressed by what they see as writing pyrotechnics (which readers find to be distractions at best).

    • It’s a bit frustrating that we don’t get a proper jury report with the Miles Franklin. Considering how much is riding on these competitions, I think all of them should have to publish the reasons for their decisions, just as when we’re hiring, we have to explain our reasons to unsuccessful applicants for a job.

      • All imitations of Henry James should be stiff or diaphanous from end to end with hideous tension and ambiguous misery and brutal yet ineffable evil upon which no human being can its finger put, and bonus points if the writer can throw in someone with a name like Fanny Assingham. Something should be lost or destroyed and something else should be betrayed, but in a way that nobody can quite define, and someone should build something that no one wants to name or describe, and then the author should say, “exquisite, exquisite” — about something. Then something catches fire.

        The funny thing is that your review makes me want to read the book, but there’s no copy in the library here, so, hey, so much for that impulse.

        • *chuckle* Could it be, Deane, that you don’t like Henry James very much?

          • No, I love Henry James. I think James is wonderful. But hideous tension and ambiguous misery are his thing. The last possibly-James-inspired book I read was Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, and the tension and the misery were there, even though none of the characters got to be exquisite. Arch, yes. But not exquisite.

            • So we will see a post or two about HJ on your blog? That would be very nice:)

  2. He made it into my last post, but it’s only partly about him. I’d been reading The Spoils of Poynton. The library system here is so keen on James that they seem to have all of him, even the early books, and even the last unfinished ones, and I’m faced with the idea that I might, for the first time, be able to read everything he published, which is overwhelming.

    • *chuckle* The Enid Blyton syndrome!

      • I’m going to start with the first volume in his Famous Five series. Three hundred pages and he never tells you what the mystery is.

  3. be interesting to read this as there was such a call round this years Miles Franklin and how few women made the list so this must be something special to do that ,all the best stu

    • Stu, there were actually three women in the longlist of 9: this one, and also Honey Brown’s The Good Daughter, and Melina Marchetta’s The Piper’s Son. The brouhaha was about the shortlist of only 3 not including any female authors. I haven’t read the other two yet, but I wouldn’t have included this one in the shortlist. It’s just not in the same league…


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