A bright, White legacy

Title: The Hanging Garden

Author: Patrick White


After Patrick White's death in 1990, the unfinished manuscript The Hanging Garden was found amongst his papers. Twenty-two years on, it has been published, to a mixture of anticipation and rumblings of controversy. Should White's incomplete work have seen the light of day?

Set in war-weary Sydney during the dying days of World War II, life is "all rumours and newspapers". Fourteen-year-old Eirene Sklavos has just arrived from Greece with her mother, the flighty Australian-born Geraldine. Eirene's father, a Greek "patriot", has been tortured and killed in prison. It soon becomes clear that once Geraldine has delivered Eirene to Sydney, she will abandon her and return to Europe.

Geraldine's sister, Ally Lockhart, offers no sanctuary either. Her household is already bursting with robust males. The chain-smoking Ally confides in Eirene that she must continue her nightly "freedom" jaunts, gadding about in her old car, with bottles of gin rattling around in the back.

Eirene is left to creep about a lurching boarding house on the harbour, inhabited by the migraine-prone but not unkind Mrs Bulpit, and another teenage exile, Gilbert Horsfall. Gil has been evacuated from London on account of the Blitz. Ravaged by nightmares, he has stumbled out of ruins and lost his friend in a raid. He also suspects his father "The Colonel" is using the war as an excuse to send him away.

Both "belonging nowhere", Eirene and Gil are wary of each other. Gil sees Eirene as a fascinating "black snake", with her mysterious snippets of Greek myth and matter-of-fact experience of communism and volcanos. For Eirene, Gil is a "sinewy white monkey", swinging from being her comrade to shunning her. But it is in the no-man's-land of Mrs Bulpit's wild garden, "floating" above the cliffs, that Gil and Eirene discover the fragile possibility of companionship.

Under White's sharp gaze, loyalties shift like the fickle harbour light. This is a world where the adults are flawed and distant, and the ragged children are usually on the take.

In notes included in this handsomely designed book, David Marr maintains the decision to publish was not "taken lightly". I am glad they took it on. It is hard to imagine this late addition to White's considerable catalogue being locked away in an archive box. The few noticeably incomplete sections only spark the imagination and whet the appetite, while offering tantalising glimpses into the mind of a great writer at work.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Lismore.

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