The Hanging Garden

Written by Patrick White
Review by Helene Williams

This short unfinished novel by the late Nobel prizewinner Patrick White (1912-1990) provides a tantalizing peek inside the minds of two adolescents intent on finding themselves and overcoming astounding loss while World War II rages around them.

In 1942, Gilbert Horsfall and Eirene Sklavos are evacuated from war zones to Neutral Bay, Australia, just outside of Sydney. Gil came from London, by way of the U.S., and half-Greek Reen has escaped from Egypt. They find themselves at Mrs. Bulpit’s none-too-comfortable home, surrounded by the unfamiliar. These two young “reffos,” or refugees, are outcasts in many ways: they’ve been pushed away by their families, bullied by their schoolmates, and they don’t fit into this bright, hot landscape where not a lot happens externally. Inside though, they’re seething, trying to establish themselves as individuals. As in his other fiction, White employs a shifting narrative perspective, which makes it difficult at times to know whose head we’re in, but that’s completely appropriate for the story; how many of us understands what we’re hearing from a young teenager, anyway? The unavoidable push-pull of two strong personalities battling for power and acceptance is exotic—nothing here is “normal” to either of them, after all—as well as erotic.

According to White’s biographer, what we have here is about one-third of the novel White had planned to write. While it would be fulfilling to know how Gil and Eirene resolve their feelings and situations as they mature, this part of the story can certainly stand on its own, and aptly serves as a portal into White’s other masterful works.