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.