Elizabeth Harrower’s fourth and final novel, The watch tower, is a rather harrowing (couldn’t resist that) read. It is also an astonishing read, and I wonder why it has had such little recognition over the decades or so since its publication in 1966. Thanks to Text Classics, though, it now has a second chance. It deserves it. In fact, I’d say it is one of the best books I’ve read this year (to date, of course!)
What makes it so is the writing. It has a Patrick White-like intensity – and I can see her influence in writers like Joan London and Shirley Hazzard*. But first, a little about the content. It is set in Sydney and spans roughly the mid-1930s to around 1950. The plot is slim. It concerns two sisters, Laura and Clare, who are abandoned twice – first, albeit inadvertently, by their father (through his death when Laura is about 16 years old, and Clare, 9) and then a few years later by their selfish unloving mother who decides to return to her family in England, without them. What happens to them from this point is Harrower’s subject and it all centres on the ironically named Felix, Laura’s first and only boss, who comes to the rescue, or so it seems, when mother leaves the scene.
Laura had been a girl of dreams with the ability to achieve them. She aspired to be a doctor, but when tragedy strikes and she is taken from school, she’s not overly concerned. She “had read books” and in all but those with “circumstances ridiculously removed from hers, everything ended happily for young heroines.” And yet she also
had a sensation of having mislaid a vital pleasure that she could not remember, or a piece of herself.
Clare is younger and is less affected by having to leave boarding school, but life with their mother is no picnic. She expects her daughters to “take over”, to, in effect, run the house as well as go to school, for Clare, and business college then work for Laura. And so Laura’s life of servitude to one master or another begins, while Clare takes on the role of helper and watcher. Laura gets on with the job, generously and to her detriment, particularly when the misogynistic power-hungry Felix enters the scene. Clare sees what is going on, and expects more of life, but soon realises she
had really nowhere to go. Caught, not safe, cold – There were no reliable people.
From these premises, Harrower builds a story of psychological and physical entrapment in which both girls become caught in Felix’s malevolent net. Laura, ever the Pollyanna who believes noone would be consciously mean or vicious, becomes complicit in the destruction of her self while Clare, physically caught, maintains a vision of something better and does her darnedest to get Laura to see it too.
Harrower develops all this with a slow drip-drip, through language that is tightly pared to the essentials, through a simple but not even chronology that moves in fits and starts, and through a narrative voice characterised by subtle shifts in point of view. The focus is inwards – on a small number of characters and their relationships with each other that rarely lets outsiders in. The result is a claustrophobic tone – and a slow build up of tension and suspense. Take this description, for example, of the women upon hearing Felix, drunk, coming down the path:
Breaking their poses like trees snapping branches, the women urgently regarded each other, cleared away all signs of work in an instant, examined their souls for defects, in a sense crossed themselves, and waited.
Acts of violence do occur, but are reported in retrospect. This seems to lessen our focus on the specific event and emphasises instead the response of the two young women. Will they decide to leave this time?
Late in the novel a fourth person, 19 year-old Dutch migrant, Bernard, is thrown into the mix, creating the catalyst for the denouement. For Laura, he provides a diversion for “poor Felix” and hopefully another chance for him to show a decent side. For Clare, he shows her that for all her suffering she can still be a useful person. For Felix, he of the “cold smile” and “deaf look”, well that would be telling… And as for Bernard himself, the question is whether he will survive his Felix experience intact.
And this brings me to my final point. While she doesn’t expressly say it, and in addition to her study of power and control, Harrower seems to be exploring ideas about the soul (a person’s essence) and character. Where does one end and the other begin? How do they act upon each other, and is change possible? This is a book I won’t quickly forget.
The watch tower
(with a new introduction by Joan London)
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)
* Hazzard is only 3 years younger than Harrower but her first novel was published, I believe, in 1966, the year this, Harrower’s last, was published.
38 thoughts on “Elizabeth Harrower, The watch tower (Review)”
Hello Gummie: I read this a year or so ago, and I have another of hers sitting on the shelf. You’ll be happy/flabbergasted to know that I have a couple of Elizabeth Jolleys lined up and another Mark McShane. Can’t leave those Aussie crime novels out of the picture.
Thanks Guy … Had forgotten that but as you’ll know by now have popped over to your blog to read your review again. Great review …
As for Jolley, that’s great. I’ll be watching out for your reviews. As for McShane, guess I’ll read that review too!
The McShane I reviewed was Séance on a Wet Afternoon (it was made into a marvellous film w/Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough). Set in England.
I’ve never heard of that film Guy … Sounds like I should check it out.
Elizabeth Harrower really does seem to have disappeared, doesn’t she? I hadn’t heard of her at all until this post. What was Joan London’s introduction like? She seems a good choice for a current-day author to write the introduction
It was a good introduction … Partly talking about how she came across this book pretty much by accident in the university library and how she didn’t know Australians were writing like this! I can see why she felt that way, RJ, as her writing is delicious.
Oh dearie me. I don’t think this is a book I’d cope well with reading at present. Particularly considering that I’m so tired I had to read your first few lines FOUR TIMES before I got the “harrowing” pun.
You must be tired Hannah … But in the right mood, you would, I think, find her an impressive writer.
I might read this book on the basis that Joan London wrote the intro. That would seem to be the gold standard in introductions.
I think you’d probably like it Tony … And London’s intro is not too long but beautifully to the point.
I’m glad to have been reminded of this. Guy kindly passed me his copy, and I’m looking forward to it.
Hannah, that hits all of us sometimes I think. I tend to turn to genre when I get too tired for the serious stuff. Or comics…
Thanks Max. I saw that Guy was going to send it to you … Ilook forward to seeing what you have to say when it reaches the top of your pile!
I’m sure Hannah appreciates your fellow feeling!
I finally got round to reading this. Your review captures it very well. Harrowing indeed (the pun really is very fitting). So well observed, and yet while it is in a sense a story of lives distorted and wasted the quality of the writing and characterisation makes it still an enjoyable read. Definitely a classic.
Oh thanks Max. So glad you’ve read it, and that you came back to tell me. Nice to hear from you.
Wow, this sounds really good! Thanks for adding yet one more book to my reading list 🙂
It really is, Stefanie. I’m sure you’d like it…
I remember reading this one years ago, and I also read Harrower’s novel The Long Prospect. Written on simiiar lines and just as good.
Oh good for you Meg. I must try to read her other novels. I wonder why she didn’t write any more after this one?
The Watchtower got a few mentions at the SWF this year, Sue. It’s on my TBR and you might have just bumped it up a few places! Thanks, John.
Good to hear John … I’m assuming the mentions were positive!
This sounds wonderful … Patrick White, Shirley Hazzard… It’s on my wishlist as of now.
Oh good Lisa … If and when you get to it you’ll have to tell me if you agree with my reference to those writers!
Christina Stead liked her, or she blurbed her at least; my copy of The Long Prospect has a line from Stead on the front. They were friends in the ’70s after Stead returned to Australia, and from Stead’s letters it looks as though Harrower was wondering why her books weren’t having any luck with Americans. Australian settings are a hurdle in that market, says Stead. “We are terribly provincial, all of us. (No comfort to you.)”
Thanks for this DKS. I had heard something about her and Stead but didn’t know the details. Have you read this book?
Yes, yes I do, but I also found myself thinking of Christina Stead with that piercing portrayal of petty cruelties and savage power plays.
Thanks for coming back and replying … I still have to read The man who loved children but I can imagine from what you and DKS say that I’d feel the same. Last year was to be Christina Stead but something happened to the year. What, I don’t know!
I really did laugh out loud at your opening sentence.
The story sounds beautiful and the word ‘soul’ in any review makes me sit up and take notice.
Definitely on my list.
Always glad to make people laugh Karen Lee. As for soul, I don’t use that word a lot but it seemed applicable here though the obvious story and theme is the power one.
This sounds like tricky and inviting work. Glad you pulled it out of your magic hat. Am rereading Voss now and enjoying colonial Sydney, will be ordering this now!
That’s a good way to describe it Catherine.
As for Voss … It is on my reread schedule (to do with a friend who hasn’t read it before.) Such a great book, isn’t it?
Have you read this book? No, only The Long Prospect.
Is it good? I’d certainly be interested to read more.
We know the Good Character is Good because she’s sensitive, reads books, is oppressed, and wants to learn Greek; we know the Bad Character is Bad because she does awful, terrible, philistine things like watch television and sit in a chair. I thought it was priggish.
Ah, interesting DKS. The watch tower sounds more complex than that I think … That is, in its exploration of psychology. I wonder what her others are like.
I wonder that too. The bare bones of Prospect are similar to the bare bones of Stead’s Man Who Loved Children (an adolescent realises that she needs to break free from the adults who’re stifling her) but Stead’s fleshing-out is ambiguous and complicated, Harrower’s is cartoonish and clean; the adult in her book is a clear bad influence, slobbish and insensitive and watches television while sensitive heroine prefers to read: this relationship best compared to the one between protagonist and family in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The adolescent is stimulated by the arrival of an appropriate male scholar and the division between goodness and badness is clear. But the adolescent in Man Who Loved is a muddled and omnivorous gatherer of influences; if the family had a television she’d probably watch it. The adults are stimulating as well as oppressive, the equivalent of the scholar is the same father who drives her mad, and the adolescent’s real triumph lies not in escaping her adults but in synthesising them. That’s what makes her an artist. Not delicacy but ruthlessness. Her parents are monsters; she’s a different monster, an artist-monster. This is a stranger point of view than the one that powers Prospect, less likely to garner sympathy from an audience, and more knottily presented. (Thinking back, I wonder if Prospect was supposed to be aimed at a teenage audience and my reprint-copy didn’t mention it.)
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