When I first read The Transit of Venus, I was rather underwhelmed. I was in my twenties then and recently back in Australia after a period when I had thought I would make my life in France. I came to Shirley Hazzard's third novel by way of The Bay of Noon and The Evening of the Holiday. These ravishing early novels, both set in Italy, fed my nostalgia for Europe. I identified intensely with their young female protagonists whose private dramas were lifted into grandeur by the antique backgrounds against which they played out.
The Transit of Venus, set mainly in the Anglophone world, seemed drab by comparison. The narrative revolves around two Australian sisters, Caro and Grace Bell, who emigrate to England in the 1950s. The novel follows them into middle age, chronicling their very different experiences of love, marriage, failure, work. I finished the book, put it aside and forgot all about it for 20 years.
At the beginning of this century came Greene on Capri, Hazzard's memoir about her long friendship with Graham Greene. As I slotted it into my bookshelves, my eye fell on The Transit of Venus. I took it down and, standing there, began to read. I still remember the shock that came at once, like a blow to the breastbone: But this is brilliant.
Hazzard's great subject, already revealed in the early novels, is love. In The Transit of Venus, she brings a clarity and steeliness reminiscent of classical tragedy to her material – an extraordinary achievement. The sense of fatality and patterning in this flawlessly constructed novel is strong. Its devastating finale is prefigured in its first sentence, and seemingly trivial incidents reveal their significance as events unfold. Everything that happens seems determined by laws as inexorable as those that govern the stars. Hazzard's sentences burst on the mind like a succession of illuminations. Consider this skewering of a character: "Dora sat on a corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned a task so she could resent it." The Transit of Venus is an almost unbearably sad book, yet Hazzard is also a wonderfully funny writer, hyper-alert to pretension and cant.
So what went wrong all those years ago? Armed with degrees in literature, I considered myself a sophisticated reader. But novels speak to us directly and personally, or not at all. Nothing had equipped me to understand what Hazzard has to say about the power of time to transform and crush. One reason I treasure The Transit of Venus is for showing me how wrong I can be.
Michelle de Kretser's new novel is 'Questions of Travel' (Allen & Unwin)