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The Vivisector By Patrick White (Vintage)

Last update - Sunday, December 15, 2013, 18:09 By Jeanette Rehnstrom

Patrick White nowadays forms an integral part of the Australian literary landscape, but that was not so when he first began to write. Initially he was ignored in his homeland, while he garnered increasing appreciation in the US and UK. The main reason for Australia turning its back on him seemed to be his ‘difficult’ writing. White still remains partly on the fringes; people really should know of him, should read him, but the reality is that some cannot muster the effort required. The Vivisector is not one of his more complex novels, and so is perhaps a safe start for those of you that have hesitated to venture into his peculiar world.

Hurtle Duffield is born into a poor hardworking family. From the start he is viewed as, and feels like, an outsider in his surroundings as he insists on regularly drawing on walls, speaking in a posh manner and having interests far from those of the rest of his family. When one day he is brought along by his mother to a washing job in an upper class house, things begin to fall into place for him. He can’t help drifting into the forbidden parts of the house, trying to take in each colour, fabric and smell. Eventually his wanderings bring him face to face with the lady of the house, who develops an immediate interest in the strange, striking young boy.
Hurtle’s obsession with the Courtney family grows, as does their interest in him, which leads to the actual selling of the boy to the Courtney family. His material circumstances change, but he remains the same cold observer he’s always been. There is no preference shown for either side of the financial divide; both families are equally lacking.
As a Courtney, Hurtle wears the crown of a sort of perfect male prodigy and heir chosen by a wealthy couple with only a sickly and slightly disfigured daughter to show for until that point. Hurtle and the daughter, Rhoda, circle each other with obvious resentment, both not feeling like they really fully belong anywhere, least of all to the family with which they live.
Hurtle continues to nurse his idea of becoming a painter, and seeking freedom to develop goes off to Europe to enlist, to the despair of the Courtneys. Purposely he leaves the wealth and name of his adopted family behind and then gradually becomes fully estranged. However, he does return to Australia, still with a single-minded focus on his art. His application eventually leads to fame, but he remains the same despite a few very intense love affairs and an equal amount of tragedies.
The novel reads very easily, and maintains a good pace that keeps one involved. The only ‘difficult’, stream-of-consciousness parts of this novel appear towards the end, and although they come a bit out of nowhere, they are interesting additions in that they convey the collapse of the body, individual and language through illness and death. At the end of it all, White seems to intimate, only art – or God – remains.

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