The Solid Mandala by Patrick White

Suzie Eisfelder

I found myself conflicted by this book. It was written by Patrick White who has received a number of awards for his writing including being named Australian of the Year in 1973. When he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature also in 1973 he sent someone else to collect it in his place, and used the prize money to create the Patrick White Award. If The Solid Mandala is anything to judge by then he wrote about ordinary people, but I really should read more of his works to be able to judge that properly.

Waldo and Arthur Brown are fairly ordinary people, they don’t do anything out of the ordinary, they live ordinary lives, in their ordinary house with ordinary skills. They are twins, born a few hours apart and so different in temperament and skills.

This book is written in four chapters. The first chapter is set in a bus and we see Waldo and Arthur walking down the street together. We see them through the eyes of Mrs Poulter as they sit on the bus. They all live in Terminus Road, the end of everything. Mrs Poulter talks to Mrs Dun and gives us a slice of life in suburban Australia including sneering at the two brothers for holding hands, apparently it wasn’t the done thing for men to hold hands. The second chapter is from Waldo’s point of view. We get to see how he hates his brother, being jealous whenever their parents appear to favour Arthur. Chapter three is from Arthur’s point of view and how he loves everyone, including his brother. The last chapter comes back in the circle to Mrs Poulter. Very neat how that works, Waldo and Arthur could be seen as Yin and Yang, both opposing the other but each complementing the other. Yin and Yang are shown as being in a circle. So we have Waldo and Arthur being Yin and Yang with Mrs Poulter being the circle.

This book is nicely written. I don’t really get the flavour of Australia in it, for far too long I thought it was set in England. Finally, White made reference to Sydney and the penny dropped. What I do get is some really well drawn characters. I feel I know all the people we see in this book, know them well enough to recognise on the street. Mrs Poulter is caring but has a hard marriage. Waldo Brown thinks he’s going to be a great author but he’s held back by his brother and the need to care for him. Arthur Brown loves people and feels he has to look after his, more intelligent, twin brother.

I do feel Arthur has autism. This book was written in 1966, only about twenty years after autism was documented. I couldn’t say whether White knew about this or was just writing about people he’d observed. Whichever it was I did feel it quite obvious with Arthur. The question in my mind is…would you know your friend had autism if you didn’t know many of the characteristics of autism? Or would you just think they’re a little odd, maybe a little intense on some points or they just don’t read body language as well as you do?

My conflict with this book goes this way. I didn’t like Waldo. I didn’t like the way he treated his brother. I didn’t like the way he thought about people. He certainly didn’t seem to understand body language, nor did he understand people. Arthur seemed to have a better understanding of people than Waldo, and we saw other people better through his eyes. But I just didn’t like Waldo. He had no sympathy for Arthur, or anyone else. And that’s where the real conflict is, I’m conflicted about a character within the book which just goes to show how good the writing is.

If you’d like to buy this book here’s an affiliate link for you. Let me know if you can see what I’m saying or if you see different things, the comment box awaits your thoughts.


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