The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard

Jenny is a British expat working for NATO in Naples, about a decade after the end of the Second World War. She is uncertain and untethered. Having escaped the oppressive domesticity of life with her brother and sister-in-law, she lacks assurance in an identity absent its emotional constraints.

She knows no one in Italy, but does have a second-hand connection to Giaconda, a writer who enthusiastically welcomes her friendship. Jenny is fascinated by Giaconda’s intellect and self-possession, attributes that seem oddly nullified in her pliant interactions with her lover Gianni, the filmmaker who directed the adaptation of her first novel. Jenny’s relationship with both artists nurtures a growing sense of liberation, but in the end exacts an emotional toll that compels her to take flight.

Hazzard’s depiction of a country that she has known for decades is nuanced and evades romanticisation – la dolce vita tinged with the squalor of post-war Naples, and shadowed by the trauma of conflict and loss.

The language is incredibly rich – arguably at times a little too rich – but there is a kind of gluttonous pleasure to be taken in the complexity, and Hazzard’s judgement and sense of control are impressive. Many sentences strike with aphoristic force, as in this observation of Gianni’s character:

Like many men who are compulsively cruel to their womenfolk, he also shed tears at the cinema, and showed a disproportionate concern for insects.

Brilliant stuff! If only for passages like that, this novel is worth reading.

What it lacks, however, is guts. Emotions are evoked from a distance; from so far away, in fact, that they lose too much energy and barely ripple the surface. While this fading of impact might be consistent with the story being filtered through the worn lens of Jenny’s memory, the resulting feeling of insubstantiality remains a problem, and the coruscating prose cannot entirely make up for it.

Next time, Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection. Until then, as always, happy reading!

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