June 2012

Arts & Letters

‘The Watch Tower’ by Elizabeth Harrower

By Michelle de Kretser

Elizabeth Harrower’s fiction obsessively circles the workings of power within the domestic sphere. Watchfulness, cruelty and the suffering of the innocent feed her work, as her titles hint: The Long Prospect, The Catherine Wheel. Harrower’s characteristic themes find their fullest expression in The Watch Tower, a superb psychological novel that will creep into your bones.

First published in 1966 and now reissued by Text, The Watch Tower examines the fate of two sisters in Sydney in the period around World War II. When their father dies and their narcissistic mother decides to return to England, Laura and Clare Vaizey must fend for themselves. Abandoning her dream of studying medicine, Laura goes to work in a factory, where she attracts the attention of the wealthy owner. Although Felix Shaw is “a mystery”, Laura accepts his offer of marriage, as he promises to support Clare as well.

The mystery is soon cleared up: Felix deals with his repressed homoeroticism by channelling it into misogyny. Having isolated the sisters in his house on Sydney Harbour, he sets about crushing their souls. In calm, wonderfully figurative prose, Harrower details the torments he inflicts on his chief victim, Laura. Felix makes this gentle creature ask for money, belittles her in public and hides a diamond ring so that she believes it’s lost and grows frantic with fear.

There’s a scene that recurs throughout, with minor variations. The sisters are alone when they hear Felix’s footsteps approaching. Immediately they cease whatever they’re doing, “examine their souls for defects … cross themselves, and wait”. The claustrophobia is brilliantly conveyed: the frightened women with suspended lives, the beautiful house converted into a trap, the man and his malice drawing near.

Laura gradually begins to adopt Felix’s values; the warping of her spirit is the central tragedy delineated here. Clare sees Felix for what he is but can’t persuade Laura to leave him. Loyalty and compassion compel Clare to remain, too. She retreats into a watch tower of emotional detachment, a stony fortress from which to survey the world. It takes a newcomer, a refugee from Europe, to disrupt this morbid pattern and release all the characters into change.

Running under the surface of events is a “primitive, chilling, subterranean” force. Felix embodies this vicious impulse, but it is far older and larger than him. Harrower suggests it finds expression in warfare or, once peace comes, in grab-all materialism. Joan London’s introduction goes to the bleak heart of things: “Who … has not endured, or witnessed, or participated in the attempt of one human being to have power over another?” It’s a question as disturbing as Harrower’s extraordinary novel.

Michelle de Kretser
Michelle de Kretser is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog, which won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

'The Watch Tower' by Elizabeth Harrower, Text Publishing; $12.95
June 2012
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