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

June 2012

From the front page

Police NSW festival

The prevention state: Part three

As authorities try to prevent crimes that haven’t happened, legislation is increasingly targeting people for whom it was not intended.

Image of Scott Morrison

A national disaster

On the PM’s catastrophically inept response to Australia’s unprecedented bushfires

Image of Scott Morrison

A Pentecostal PM and climate change

Does a belief in the End Times inform Scott Morrison’s response to the bushfire crisis?

London Bridge attack

The prevention state: Part one

Governments and police are trying to pre-empt danger with legislation. But when the risk is terrorism, there are limits to what is possible.


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Peter Norman, Tommie Smith & John Carlos

Cronulla Beach, Australia Day 2010. © James Brickwood/Fairfax Syndication

The Shire versus Australia

How a new show is creating drama

Nicola Roxon, 2012. © Julian Kingma

The Protector: Nicola Roxon

'Canada' by Richard Ford, Bloomsbury; $29.99

'Canada' by Richard Ford


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Cardi B

Bodak moment: Pop’s decade of superstars

Cardi B delivered the song of the decade as a new league of superstars overcame the significance of bands

Photo of Liam Gallagher

Don’t look back in anger: Liam and Noel Gallagher

As interest in Oasis resurges, talking to the combative brothers recalls their glory years as ‘dirty chancers, stealing riffs instead of Ford Fiestas’

Conversion on the way to Damascus by Caravaggio

Damascene subversion: Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘Damascus’

The literary storyteller’s latest novel wrestles with the mythology of Christianity’s founder, Paul the Apostle

Cover of Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘This Is Not Propaganda’ [detail]

Agents of chaos: Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘This Is Not Propaganda’

The Russian expat journalist wonders if democracy can survive the internet, as social media is used to promote feelings over facts


More in Noted

Utagawa Yoshimori, The Tongue-cut Sparrow [detail]

‘Japan supernatural’

The Art Gallery of NSW’s examination of Japan’s centuries-long artistic traditions depicting the spirit world and the macabre

Cover of ‘The Topeka School’

‘The Topeka School’ by Ben Lerner

The American author’s latest novel canvasses the seething hate speech of the burgeoning alt-right and white-boy rap battles in the Midwest

Image of ‘Wild River, Florida’

‘Civilization: The Way We Live Now’

The beautiful photographs of often grim subjects in NGV Australia’s exhibition raise questions over the medium’s power to critique

Cover of ‘The Testaments’

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize–winning sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an exhilarating thriller from the “wiliest writer alive”


Read on

Image of Scott Morrison

A Pentecostal PM and climate change

Does a belief in the End Times inform Scott Morrison’s response to the bushfire crisis?

Image of Scott Morrison

A national disaster

On the PM’s catastrophically inept response to Australia’s unprecedented bushfires

Image from ‘The Truth’

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ‘The Truth’

The Palme D’Or winner on working with the iconic Catherine Deneuve in his first film set outside Japan

Image from ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Four seasons in 11 days: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Céline Sciamma’s impeccable study of desire and freedom is a slow burn


×
×