Elizabeth Harrower, The long prospect (#BookReview)

Oppression and tyranny, power and manipulation in human relationships are the stuff of Elizabeth Harrower’s writing, at least in my experience of it, and so I found it again in her second novel The long prospect. Unlike The watch tower (my review), however, which explores the more traditional domination of women by a man, The long prospect’s tyrant is narcissistic grandma Lilian who makes pre-pubescent granddaughter Emily’s life a misery. Why is a novel about a cruel, manipulative person wielding power over someone whom they should love so enjoyable? Let me try to explain …

The long prospect, which was first published in 1958, is set in postwar Ballowra, a fictionalised industrial town based on Newcastle, just a couple of hours’ drive north of Sydney. The major part of it takes place in the home of forty-seven-year-old Lilian who wields sadistic power over all who come within her purview, including but not limited to the aforesaid granddaughter Emily. The novel starts, in fact, with Lilian visiting her ex-tenant and apparent friend, thirty-something Thea, in her new apartment in another part of Ballowra. Lilian walks into the apartment, without being invited, “her eyes on swivels”, and very quickly we realise that this friendship is one in which Lilian has assumed power but is now feeling put out. Words like “disapproval”, “frowning” and “affronted” leave us in no doubt that Lilian’s visit is not the sort of generous one you’d expect from someone visiting their friend in their new home.

This controlling, self-centred, unaffectionate behaviour of Lilian’s, as I’ve said, is not limited to Thea and Emily but extends to all her relationships, including to her daughter Paula, and to the various men who populate the novel, such as the hapless “boy-friend” Rosen and the tender, thoughtful but powerless boarder Max.

At the heart of The long prospect is Emily’s desperate search for affection and attention, which she finally finds in this thirty-something Max, who had been introduced earlier, by name only, as a past lover of Thea. Max warms to the intelligent – but clearly neglected – young girl, and starts spending time with her, mentoring her intellectual and emotional development. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go unnoticed by Lilian’s self-centred and jealous entourage, and eventually insinuations are made that bring about the novel’s denouement. Before that, though, Emily’s blossoming enthusiasm for life and learning is a delight to see.

Harrower constructs her novel and builds up the tone and tension beautifully. She introduces Lilian’s character via her opening visit to Thea. She sets up Emily’s need for affection and her subsequent bond with Max through her previous attachment to Thea and her desperate crushes on teachers. Harrower’s word use is precise, from the recurring appearance of “grey”, describing people and place, to the plain spare language that pares relationships and actions down to their essence. Here’s the desperate Rosen, trailing after Lilian into the kitchen, still hoping she will keep him:

There, catching her, he chances a reproachful expression, seeing that, anyway, her grey eyes were no longer hard, but mild and blank. She had quite abandoned her fiery mood. He was reassured, and smiled at her sheepishly. Her new look must mean apology. In fact, Lilian thought about salmon sandwiches. She filled the kettle.

Catastrophic emptiness

But, now, here’s the thing folks. I finished this book, and half-wrote this post, just before my Dad died three weeks ago. I am having trouble remembering all the thoughts I had while reading it, thoughts that particularly related to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Realism vs Modernism discussion we were having – but I’ll try. Harrower falls primarily into the Modernist tradition. She reflects the ills of the time through individual psyches, rather than exploring causes and social impacts as we find in Realist books like Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (1961) (my review).

Both Emily and Max feel the psychological impacts of their environments. Early on Emily, desperate to belong, finds herself an outsider yet again:

There was a chill lack of desirability about the room she had left, and about those she might enter – a bleak and rigid lack of warmth that penetrated the future as well as the present and the past.

Max recognises that he had responded to “the catastrophic emptiness of the past few years” by settling for:

Comfortable resignation. He looked at the idea of it. It had not always been that, but the change had been slow and subtle, worked in him secretly. Now the metamorphosis was complete, surprising, disagreeable. (p. 150)

Disagreeable, particularly now that a crisis involving Emily, whom he had wanted to nurture and protect, had come:

Max fought down a sense of alienation … (p. 150)

And yet, in The long prospect there is also a subtle backdrop of the industrialisation that is one of the drivers behind Modernism’s theme of alienation and the individual. Emily’s father Harry Lawrence, on his way for a rare visit with her, considers his old home town:

After years in the country, this subjection to industry, the smoky sky, the matured deterioration immanent at the birth of such towns as Ballowra left him oppressed and indignant. He was unwilling that it should be so bad.

The overriding sense in the book – from all the characters – those we like, and those we don’t, is one of disappointed lives. Max is one of those we like, for his warmth and his capacity for mature reflection:

No external excuse, not lack of this or that fine feeling could be counted as justification. Nothing could undo the harm these casual people had done. Yet, Max argued, they were themselves and lived as they could, and had not been wisely treated either, very likely.

I like the “very likely” qualification! I also like this fundamentally non-judgemental attitude, that doesn’t then follow through to excusing poor behaviour. Max goes on: “it was too easy to exempt from responsibility those who felt no responsibility for their actions. Too easy, reductive, wrong.” In other words, understand but don’t excuse!

The long prospect is thoroughly engaging, despite its overall depressing subject matter. The perfection of Harrower’s insight into human psychology combined with the delicious precision of her writing make it, yes, a joy to read, even though Emily’s plight is heartrending. It’s no wonder, really, that Patrick White was disappointed when Harrower stopped writing. He knew a good writer when he saw one.

Read for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 3 Week; also reviewed by Kim (Reading Matters).

Challenge logo

Elizabeth Harrower
The long prospect
Melbourne: Text Classics, 2012 (Orig. ed. 1958)
277pp.
ISBN: 9781922079480

Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary thoughts on Elizabeth Harrower

Contemporary is an odd word isn’t it? I like using it, but worry about ambiguity, given it can mean either “living or occurring at the same time” or “belonging to or occurring in the present”. So, when I say “contemporary thoughts on Elizabeth Harrower”, how do you know which meaning I intend? Well, to put your minds at rest, in this instance I’m intending the former.

Elizabeth Harrower, A few days in the countryMany of you know who Harrower is, but for those who don’t, she’s an Australian writer who was active in the 1950s to 1970s, and then largely disappeared from view. She was born in 1928 and is still alive. Four of her five novels were published in the 1950s to 1960s. The fifth novel, In certain circles, was written in the late 1960s to early 1970s, but not published until 2014, because she withdrew it from publication at the time. Her short story collection, A few days in the country, and other stories, was published last year, but includes stories dating back to the 1960s. (I have reviewed three of her books.)

So, she was an unknown to many of us when her books started appearing in Text Publishing’s Classics series. What a find she’s been, but what, I wondered, was thought about her in her heyday, and where did she fit in that literary world. To Trove, therefore, I went – and found the snippets I’m sharing today.

The first comes from “Your bookshelf” by Joyce Halstead in The Australian Women’s Weekly in 1961. Halstead writes briefly about Harrower’s third novel, The catherine wheel, which was published in 1960. She describes the plot, and concludes with her assessment:

An intense, probing study of human relationships, intricately and interestingly resolved, and deserving of high literary praise.

That certainly accords with my experience of Harrower’s writing, though I haven’t read this one – yet.

Elizabeth Harrower The watch towerNext comes another article from The Australian Women’s Weekly, this time in 1966. (Why was this very literary writer mainly featuring in a women’s magazine?) The article is titled “Op art? … Commas caused full stop” and is about her fourth novel, The watch tower. It conveys a lovely sense of Harrower’s down-to-earthness:

We mentioned the publishers’ description of her as “one of Australia’s most sensitive and psychologically perceptive novelists.”

“You know, you shouldn’t blame writers for what other people say about them,” said Miss Harrower.

She says that she had never studied psychology, and that:

“Because I am interested in people, it doesn’t mean that I go around consciously analysing them … Sometimes it is years afterwards that you remember an occurrence which, when it happened, just flowed past you.”

She then describes “having words” with her publisher (for whom, in fact, she worked herself, because writers, she said, need to have a job unless they are “a Morris West or have a private income”):

“When the publishers sent me the proofs I found they had altered all my ‘whichs’ to ‘thats’ and had taken out a lot of commas. I didn’t like it — so I changed them all back.”

I love this. I much prefer “whichs” to “thats”, regardless of what grammarians say about nonrestrictive and restrictive clauses, and I’m inclined to use more commas than less, despite modern style!

My city’s newspaper, The Canberra Times, also wrote about The watch tower, in early 1967. The reviewer, John Laird, admires Harrower’s writing, saying she:

employs a style distinguished by its sensitivity and subtlety, and displays considerable ability in capturing the flow of thoughts, emotions, and sense-impressions in the minds of her two main women characters.

But, he concludes that

What is not so convincing is the portrait of Laura’s misogynic husband. To me he seems a specially concocted figure, largely an embodiment of the malevolent and destructive forces that constantly menace the women characters in Elizabeth Harrower’s novel world.

I wonder how many women would find him “not so convincing”? Seems like Mr Laird wants to underplay the gender aspect of the “malevolent and destructive forces” menacing the women?

The next two articles* also come from The Canberra Times. One, in 1967, announces that Harrower (along with George Johnston and Thomas Keneally) had won a 12-month Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship, which is, I expect, the Fellowship that led to In certain circles, the one she withdrew from publication.

Second time around …

The other article comes from 1979, and we are now getting into re-issues of her work. The article, written by Lyn Frost, is titled “Fine Australian writing new and rediscovered”. It announces a new imprint, Sirius Quality Paperbacks, by Angus and Robertson. “The first six books”, Frost writes, “are by women and some have been out of print for far too long. Teachers of Australian literature must be grateful for their appearance.” I sure hope they were! The authors include Henry Handel Richardson, Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead and, of course, Elizabeth Harrower. In fact, the six books include two of Harrower’s, The Catherine wheel and The long prospect (which Stead called Harrower’s “masterpiece”). Frost is impressed by Harrower’s writing, saying:

I can’t think how I’ve missed reading Harrower’s perceptive work before this.

How embarrassing is it that this was exactly the response many of us had over 30 years later when Text started republishing her!

Then, along similar lines, comes critic Peter Pierce in 1988 reviewing Murray Bail’s The Faber book of contemporary Australian short stories in The Canberra Times (again). It’s a “real” review which discusses the anthology at some depth, including reference, naturally, to some of the works included. One is Elizabeth Harrower’s “The cost of things” (which also appears in A few days in the country, and other stories). Pierce describes Harrower as “Too little celebrated and too long silent in Australian literature”. (I had to laugh at Pierce’s comment that the anthology is “misleadingly titled” but that “Bail is unapologetic about including stories written nearly half a century ago”. “Contemporary” by any other name!)

There are other brief references to Harrower – including to her being a National Book Council Award judge in 1981 – but I’ll conclude with another article from The Canberra Times. It’s one of those weekly new-paperback-releases columns, and this particular week’s bunch, in 1995, included Harrower’s The long prospect (ETT Imprint). Columnist (and local English teacher) Veronica Sen calls it a “determinedly unsentimental novel”, and says that it treats “suburban small-mindedness and the pain of growing up … with panache”.

If you haven’t read Harrower yet, I hope my post has pushed you a little further in her direction.

* The Canberra Times has been digitised, to date, by the NLA, up to 1995, whereas the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, has been digitised to 1954. Disparities like this are primarily due to what permissions are granted by the respective rights holders.

Delicious descriptions from Elizabeth Harrower’s country

Elizabeth Harrower, A few days in the country and other stories

The hardback cover

In my recent review of Elizabeth Harrower’s short story collection, A few days in the country, and other stories, I included a few excerpts from the stories, but they primarily were chosen to reflect the themes and content. In this post, I want to focus on her use of language, through just a small number of examples as, of course, I don’t want to steal the thunder from the book itself.

Because Harrower’s focus is the psyche and human relationships, her “country” is as much the mind and heart as setting or place. Consequently, my selections here will cover this wider concept of country, but I’ll start with a physical description. It takes place off Scotland Island in Sydney’s beautiful Pittwater, in “The beautiful climate”. The family, Hector Shaw and his wife and daughter, are fishing, at Hector’s command of course. Here is the scene:

Low hills densely covered with thin gums and scrub sloped down on all sides to the rocky shore. They formed silent walls of a dark subdued green, without shine. Occasional painted roofs showed through. Small boats puttered past and disappeared.

I don’t think I need to tell you how our women are feeling, do I?

Here is a description of Alice and her favoured brothers, in “Alice”:

Meanwhile, the boys swam in attention and praise, and at an early age had had so much that they never needed it again, could afford to discard that particular life buoy and plunge out with a glossy confidence in their qualities. Alice never even learned to dog-paddle. Who would notice if she sank? The deep end was too risky for a girl whose brilliant dark-red curls could be so easily overlooked.

I love the sustained metaphor here.

In “English lesson”, protagonist Laura is devastated by a letter (from a man) responding to a letter of hers (which her friends told her she should write). We are not told the content of these letters, just the impact on Laura:

But could shock have the effect of bringing about a permanent physical change? Could she doubt it? Everything about her, physical and metaphysical, had sunk, shrunk. She was shorter, pruned, slightly murdered.

Can we doubt the impact?

And finally, here is Dan from “The cost of things”, unhappy in his marriage, but returning to his wife after a long business trip away during which he has had an affair:

He felt like someone who has had the top of his head blown off, but is still, astonishingly, alive, and must learn to cope with the light, the light, and all it illuminated.

If these don’t appeal to you, then maybe Harrower isn’t the writer for you, but if they do, I say, hop to it … and find one of her books.

Elizabeth Harrower, A few days in the country, and other stories (Review)

HarrowerCountryTextThere’s something about Elizabeth Harrower. I’ve just read her Stella Prize shortlisted short story collection A few days in the country, and other stories – and wow! Really, just wow! If you’re a regular reader here, you’ve probably noticed that I’m not one to effuse excessively about books, anymore than I’m one to pan them. I’m careful about what I choose to read, so most of what I read I enjoy. There are, after all, a lot of good and inspiring writers around. But Harrower – the more I read her, the more I see why Patrick White and Christina Stead liked her. She really is something. Her shrewd intelligence, sharp wit, and ability to penetrate the hearts of her characters in just a few words is breathtaking.

Enough though of the superlatives. They are easy to say, but can I prove they are just? I’ll give it a go. As I was reading – and enjoying – Tegan Bennett Daylight’s collection Six bedrooms (my review) I was thinking, yet again, about the current preference for writing in first person. I certainly don’t reject this narrative voice, because I do enjoy the intimacy of it, but I sometimes wonder whether it has become a little de rigueur, perhaps reflecting today’s me-focus? I don’t mean, in saying this, to criticise contemporary writers, because the self is part of the zeitgeist – and to capture that you have to use its modes. However, there’s also something to be said for standing back a little, and this is what a third person voice can do. It is, in fact, what Jane Austen is admired for – her clear-eyed ability to analytically, but wittily, comment on her society, to skewer its pretensions, entrapments and hypocrisies. Harrower exerts the same clear eye, though her focus is more the psyche to Jane Austen’s society.

Now to the collection, itself. The first thing to say is that this is a collection of twelve stories, ten of which have been published before, some as far back as the 1960s and others as recent as last year. Some have been multiply published in anthologies, and some have been reworked. Oh, and eleven are told in third person, with just one in first! There is a subtle underlying structure to the stories, with the first four being about young people – starting with ten-year-old Janet in the opening story, “The fun of the fair”, then moving on to teenagers and young women – followed by the later stories which feature married couples or single adults facing the lives they have made for themselves. The last shocking story, the titular “A few days in the county”, could only be at the end.

There is, I’d say, an overall theme to the collection, and it is best expressed by Clelia in the penultimate story, “It is Margaret”. Her mother, Margaret, has just died and Clelia is dealing with her step-father, a very controlling man reminiscent of Felix in The watch tower (my review) and Hector Shaw in this collection (“The beautiful climate”). Clelia thinks:

Here it was again–the mystery that pursued her through life in one form, in another, returning and returning, presenting itself relentlessly for her solution: how should human beings treat each other?

This is one of those chilling stories about the power people, men usually, can exert over others, and the way women, more often than not, submit to that power, as Margaret did. But Margaret – the title allluding to one of my all-time favourite poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and fall” – has died, and “there was no further harm Theo could do”. We hope.

This theme, the way people treat each other, is at the heart of every story, and culminates in the final one, “A few days in the country”. What an unnamed someone did to the protagonist Sophie is not made explicit, only hinted at, but the consequences are devastating for her. An undivulged act having a dramatic impact on the protagonist is also explored in the tenth story, “English lesson”, nicely setting us up for this last story and again suggesting a careful hand in ordering the stories.

The consistent world view regarding power and manipulation in the way human beings treat each other is offset by variety in setting, character, story and tone. I was intrigued, for example, by two that read almost like little fables, “Alice”* and “The cornucopia”. Both are written third person, but with an added layer of distance. That is, they are written from a neutral position (“third person objective”), rather than by a narrator who takes us into the heads of the characters, interpreting their feelings and attitudes (“third person limited” or “subjective”). Regardless of how you describe the technique, however, the change in tone adds variety to the reading experience and forces us to look at humanity from a different, cooler, standpoint.

So, “Alice” then. She is a little girl unappreciated by a mother who prefers her sons:

Luckily for the mother, she also had two sons, younger than the girl–golden, milky boys not made entirely of wood and flames like their mother, nor of guileless life like their sister, but a mixture of both, and somehow not quite enough of either. They were extremely pretty children just the same. Like Alice, the brothers had remarkable hair and eyes, but their great triumph over her was that they were boys. She began to perceive that this, more than curls or thoughtful ways, was what pleased. The question was: could one terribly good girl ever, in her mother’s eyes, equal one boy? And the answer was no. (“Alice”)

The story goes on to chronicle Alice’s life, her struggle to be recognised and accepted in a family, then a world, where boys didn’t have to try, “they were welcome when they arrived.” Alice marries, but still wants her mother’s love. However

If Alice had a fault, dangerous to her survival, it was that she was inordinately reluctant to learn from experience. She would not. Because the lesson would be so sad.

Clelia in “It is Margaret”, by contrast, did learn lessons from her step-father, and you can see why Alice resists learning hers:

She would have known much less about good and evil without his lessons, but she had paid a good deal for them.

Lessons are another ongoing theme in the book.

You have probably realised by now that what I most love about this book is its writing. It just takes my breath away. Besides the variety already mentioned, there’s her language – the economy of her imagery, her tight pointed syntax. She can do irony. There’s not a lot that’s beautiful, for example, in “The beautiful climate”, and in “The cost of things” the real costs are more than monetary. And, yes, she can be funny – albeit mostly with biting wit – like:

The man had a lot to put up with, too, with the world not appreciating him as it should. (“Alice”)

and

Holding glasses, standing in strategic formation, the men were fascinated. Though the sum of money involved was trivial, it was, nevertheless, money, and the whole story began to symbolise some problem, to involve principles … By the instant, they grew harder. (“The cornucopia”)

It might sound from these that Harrower is only critical of men, but Julia in “The cornucopia”, with her Grades I, II and III friends will put you right on that!

You know how some writers just speak to you? Well, for me, it is writers like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Jolley, Thea Astley and now Elizabeth Harrower, writers whose sharp intellect and sly wit get to the nub of human experience and make me laugh and gasp in the one breath. Now, though, I’m stuck. I want to tell you about every story in this book, but I can’t. I’d bore you, and I need to move on. However, I hope I’ve encouraged you to try Harrower, if you haven’t already. Meanwhile, I can feel a Delicious Descriptions coming on!

awwchallenge2016Elizabeth Harrower
A few days in the country and other stories
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015
205pp.
ISBN: 9781925240566

* “Alice” was published in The New Yorker last year, and you can read it online. If you do, tell me if it does or doesn’t whet your appetite for more.

Delicious descriptions from Elizabeth Harrower’s Circles

Elizabeth Harrower, In certain circlesIn my recent review of Elizabeth Harrower’s In certain circles, I focused on the book’s form and overall themes, and warned that I’d produce a Delicious Descriptions to share some of her writing. So, here it is, organised by headings to keep it simple …

Gender

I didn’t focus on gender in my review, but this is Harrower, and it is one of her ongoing concerns. It was in The watch tower, where the powerlessness of neglected young women put them in danger’s way, psychological and physical, and it’s here, in this novel, where women’s choices are constrained by expectations and conventions.

I’ll just share one scene. It occurs when Zoe responds to Lily who doesn’t believe Zoe understands how some women put children first. Zoe feels she understands only too well:

‘What I do understand is that at any point in a woman’s life she may come across something like a cement pyramid in the middle of the road. Another person. People. She’s capable of sitting there, convinced that it would be impossible to forsake her position, till it becomes a private Thermopylae. This sort of block was probably designed for the survival of our species, but the cost’s high. What makes men superior is that they don’t – on the whole – stop functioning forever because of another person. They lack this built-in handicap, and are they lucky!’

Zoe is finally seeing the light – though where she sees this “built-in handicap” originating is not clear! She admits elsewhere that she’s been complicit in her dismantlement, that she’d “agreed to be devalued”, but she’s also aware that there are other drivers. It’s part of the complexity of this novel that nothing, including gender, is black-and-white.

Emotional states

Harrower captures her characters’ emotional states with breathtaking economy. Since they’re short I’ll give you a few examples.

Zoe, soon after meeting Stephen:

He despised her. An invisible hand dragged a steel rake across her body.

My, that’s visceral isn’t it?

Here is Anna during a conversation with Russell. By this time their unstated feelings for each other are starting to affect their ability to relate naturally:

Speaking in a tone of enormous objectivity, looking straight ahead, Anna felt her skeleton waver secretly, as though it were seaweed pressed about by movements of deepest seas, invisible on the glittering surface.

You feel the effort it takes her, here, to keep strong. I also love this description of Anna after the crisis:

Anna was stared at. As though by choice, she left her face undefended, and her trustfulness was felt by others as a gift of purest generosity, as a sort of honour.

By contrast, here is her brother Stephen around the same time, finally confronting the waste of his and Zoe’s relationship:

Like someone kidnapped and dragged across a frontier into a place where the language and laws were wholly unknown, he glanced about with a mix of desperation and bafflement.

Place

While the interior is Harrower’s focus, she can write exteriors beautifully, usually to reflect, or contrast, her characters’ emotions.

Anna, widowed not so long ago and wiser in affairs of the heart, talks to Zoe about time being short. Zoe, in the early rosy years of her marriage, doesn’t understand her, thinking:

This was the wrong moment for pensive utterances–a gorgeous, glowing evening with the beach down there suddenly deserted and the sand turning cool and white, and the calm harbour a bay of light, and the trees beatified by the late sunlight.

Blissful – and yet methinks the “cool and white” could also intimate the chill around the corner?

And here are Zoe and Stephen, after fifteen years of marriage:

They went along the beach and swam in Russell’s pool before anyone was awake. The sun rose swiftly and built a shifting honeycomb of light on the green floor of the pool. The early morning had a glassy fragility, and Zoe felt the link between herself and Stephen to have that same extreme fragility and transparency; a breath could shatter it. Stephen churned through the water. She shivered and pulled on her towelling coat, prudently absent from past and future.

I mean, really, that last sentence. It’s a kicker isn’t it?

This was not an easy post to write, not because it was hard to find good examples to share but because it was hard to choose from so many delicious descriptions. All I can say is that I hope those I’ve chosen are good enough to inspire you to read this book, if you haven’t already.

Elizabeth Harrower, In certain circles (Review)

Elizabeth Harrower, In certain circlesThere’s an interesting story behind Elizabeth Harrower’s last novel, In certain circles. It was all set for publication in 1971, following her very successful The watch tower (my review), when Harrower pulled it. Why? I wondered about this as I read it, and I have some ideas, but more on that anon. First, the story.

In certain circles chronicles the lives from youth until their forties of five people – well-to-do brother and sister Russell and Zoe Howard, orphans from an impoverished background Stephen and Anna Quayle, and Lily the teenage sweetheart and then wife of Russell. Part way through the novel, Stephen and Zoe also marry, as does Anna outside the circle. The story starts and ends with Zoe, but the perspective shifts a little along the way between the various characters. It’s a story of idealism and wasted opportunities, of the decisions we make (or don’t make) and their unintended consequences. It’s also about the way the past can drive those decisions. The setting is Sydney, not long after World War 2, though it’s never made explicit. Harrower is not interested in time and place, just people – who they are, why they do what they do, and how it impacts their deepest selves.

Commentators discussing Harrower invariably tell us that Australian literary luminaries Patrick White and Christina Stead praised her writing. You can see why – she writes with their intensity, probing deeply into the psyches of her characters to explore motive, feeling and behaviour. I’d also liken her to the recently deceased Anita Brookner, who, coincidentally, was born the same year as Harrower, 1928, and who also intensely explored the psyches of her characters.

The thing about Harrower’s writing here, though, is that while character is her focus, a strong sense of form underpins her style. The novel is, for example, presented in three clearly delineated parts, which facilitates time-jumps without the need for extensive explanation and gives it the narrative arc of a classic three-act drama.

So, Part 1 is set just after the war. Zoe is a bright, “fearless”, world-at-her-feet young seventeen-year-old, who often doesn’t mean what she says and is not known for her “social conscience”. She is, clearly, ready for a fall. A perfect Act 1 set up in other words. Big brother Russell, on the other hand, has been touched by experience, including being a prisoner-of-war, and has a more realistic perspective of the world. He sees disadvantage and he wants to right it. The opening scene is a tennis party at the Howards, to which Russell has invited the orphans and at which his fiancée Lily is also present. Our five characters are thus properly introduced to us and each other.

Part 2 starts eight years later, when Zoe is 25 years old and has just returned, upon her mother’s death, from a blossoming career in film and photography in Europe. The course of her life changes at this point, and she marries Stephen who is now in business with her brother Russell. She finds herself deeply in love with this man who, when she was 17, had both attracted and repelled her with his judgement of and opposition to her. In this part, the characters have settled into some sort of stable routine, but we readers see the cracks even if the characters themselves don’t. Take Zoe, our main character, for example:

Excessively, even for someone in love, Zoe had found a chameleon-like capacity for fitting herself to Stephen’s moods.

Hmm, we think … and this too:

From riding the crest of a wave, from taming tigers, she had turned into this new thing–a suppliant, but a suppliant with a purpose: all to be well with Stephen.

The conversations between them are chilling – because Zoe submits and submits her self to his views and ideas.

Meanwhile, Lily, for whom family is all (“it was not only a sort of pity Lily felt for anyone unrelated to her, but an involuntary antagonism”) and who has given up her career for her children, is becoming frustrated with Russell’s focus on a wider humanity. And Anna, now widowed, realises where her love truly lies – Russell.

Then comes Part 3, as it inevitably must. Zoe is nearly 40, and not happy. (We could have told her!) After 15 years of self-denial and subsuming her self to Stephen, she is a changed woman, to her detriment, and she knows it. That fall we assumed at the beginning has finally come – and not just for Zoe. The denouement is dramatic, rapid and effective in shaking up the characters’ complacencies and self-destructive compromises, just as you’d rightly expect in a narrative of this sort.

Besides this three-part structure, Harrower also employs form in her character handling. The novel starts with two sets of siblings and one outsider, Lily, but by the middle of part 2, they have re-formed into two couples and a different outsider, Anna. This rearranging of pairs-and-outsider creates parallels and counterpoints that keep the story tight and focused, exposing tensions and differences.

“wasted years”

But form, of course, is used for a purpose, which is to explore themes important to Harrower. In certain circles is not as claustrophobic or as chilling as The watch tower, but they have similar concerns, such as loneliness and a feeling of entrapment. These play out differently in In certain circles, where the focus is on wasted talents, through lack of opportunities, and wasted lives, through difficult pasts or poor decisions, but the result is the same – loneliness, desolation, and entrapment, conscious or otherwise.

Early in the novel, when she’s still 17, Zoe escapes a room of older people, “away from miserable white faces and wasted years”. Ironically, this is exactly how Zoe finds herself twenty odd years later, because Stephen has, “without the least desire to deflate or wound”, dissolved the last of her “ideas and ambitions”, leaving her trapped, demoralised, “detesting the person she had become”.

Zoe is not the only one. The other characters too find themselves having wasted at least some aspect of their lives, some because they can’t let go of (or are damaged by) the past, others because they honour decisions and commitments they’ve made.

There are many roads by which these characters come to the wasteland in their lives, and Harrower presents them with an acuity that is also generous. She doesn’t judge. Even when, at the beginning, Zoe is arrogant and self-involved, Harrower encourages us to like her because she’s lively and good-hearted rather than malicious. Stephen would be even easier for us to dislike, but his pain, his genuine love for his sister, and his obliviousness to “the damage he had done”, enable us to understand rather than hate him.

And now, here I am, way past when I should have finished this post, but having barely touched on the writing – and I should discuss it, because it is delicious. Harrower nails feelings, attitudes and motives with a pithiness that takes your breath away. Watch out for a Delicious Descriptions post!

So, returning to my opening para, why might Harrower have pulled her novel? I understand that she submitted it, pulled it and re-worked it, then submitted it again, and pulled it permanently. I can see why she may have done this: the drama that precipitates the resolution is a little far-fetched though she explains it well enough to make it work; Russell is comparatively shadowy even among the less developed characters; and occasionally the perspective feels a little clumsy or laboured, as if she hasn’t fully resolved how to bring all her personages into the frame as she desires. But, are these serious enough for the book not to have been published? I don’t think so. Neither did Text, and neither, we have to presume, did that original publisher. It is literature’s gain that this book has finally seen the light of day.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the book.

awwchallenge2016Elizabeth Harrower
In certain circles
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014
250pp.
ISBN: 9781922182968

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Elizabeth Harrower on Circular Quay

When I reviewed Elizabeth Harrower‘s The watch tower the other day I wanted to fill it up with quotes from the book because her writing is so delicious. And that means, of course, that it is perfect for a Delicious Descriptions post. The one I’ve chosen occurs at the end of Part 2 (of three parts). I like it because it, albeit briefly, describes place – central Sydney in the mid 1950s – as well as one of the characters – Clare. It’s quite a long quote but here goes:

… The well-dressed, prosperous crowds pushed off the ferry, slipped coins into the ancient turnstiles and clanged through, out onto the concourse of the Quay.

Even as early as this, the small shops were busy – the bread kiosks, milk-bars, dry-cleaners and delicatessans. And he was at his usual post. He recognised her as she went towards him. Every week he looked smaller in his loose navy-blue uniform, and frailer and dustier; every week she thought he would be missing.

The morning breeze that lifted her hair and flapped the old man’s uniform was seaweedy and salty. Traffic rumbled. People ran. Clare stood before the old man and let some shillings drop into his box. The small Salvation Army soldier watched her and she watched his lips and weak blue eyes, waiting, determined. (Yet she might be rebuffed.)

‘God bless you,’ he said simply, looking at her like a child.

Oh! — Clare relaxed. ‘Thank you,’ she murmured. She was blessed, who was most in need of blessing. Blessed.

Having received what she had paid for, she moved on.

I love what this says about Clare’s desperation … and how Harrower conveys it through such a normally mundane scene. She shows how a typical, simple transaction becomes something way more while busy, purposeful Sydney life goes on around it, unaware, reflecting the world’s oblivion to what Laura and Clare are submitted to, day in and day out. I also like the sense of the giver being desperate to receive. Finally, it shows how Harrower can build up tension. Who is he? Why is she going towards him?

Elizabeth Harrower, The watch tower (Review)

Elizabeth Harrower The watch tower

Cover for The watch tower (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

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.

Elizabeth Harrower
The watch tower
(with a new introduction by Joan London)
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
335pp.
ISBN: 9781921922428

(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.