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

Mourning Tim Fischer

Today’s crop of Nats are an affront to the legacy of the former leader

Book covers

Robot love: Ian McEwan’s ‘Machines Like Me’ and Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Frankissstein’

Literary authors tackle sentience and rationality in AI, with horrific results

Image from ‘The Loudest Voice'

‘The Loudest Voice’: a nightmarish portrait of a monster

The sheer scale of Roger Ailes’s wrongs defies the medium of television

Photo of Adam Goodes

Swan song: Documenting the Adam Goodes saga

Two documentaries consider how racism ended the AFL star’s career


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

Photo of Adam Goodes

Swan song: Documenting the Adam Goodes saga

Two documentaries consider how racism ended the AFL star’s career

Book covers

Robot love: Ian McEwan’s ‘Machines Like Me’ and Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Frankissstein’

Literary authors tackle sentience and rationality in AI, with horrific results

Photo of Margot Robbie

Popcorn maker: Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’

The tide may have turned against the director’s juvenile instincts and misogynist violence

Photo of Lil Nas X

Happy trails: Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’

The gay country-rapper exposes the complex play of identity, algorithms and capitalism


More in Noted

Cover of ‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

An emotionally eloquent novel about the necessary inheritance of strength in Indigenous women

Impression, Sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet

‘Monet: Impression Sunrise’ at the National Gallery of Australia

Impressionism’s namesake painting is at the heart of a masterful collection from the Musée Marmottan Monet

Detail of 'Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky: Two Eagles', by Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang’s ‘The Transient Landscape’ and the Terracotta Warriors at the National Gallery of Victoria

The incendiary Chinese artist connects contemporary concerns with cultural history

Cover image of ‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami

‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami

An accidental death in a tale of immigrant generations highlights fractures in the promise of America


Read on

Image from ‘The Loudest Voice'

‘The Loudest Voice’: a nightmarish portrait of a monster

The sheer scale of Roger Ailes’s wrongs defies the medium of television

Image of Peter Drew bike stencil

A meme is born: Real Australians Say Welcome

How one artist’s posters about politics took on a life of their own – an extract

Image of Nigel Farage at CPAC in Sydney

Making sense of CPAC

Why the Conservative Political Action Conference should not be dismissed lightly

Image from ‘Midsommar’

Pagan poetry: the studied strangeness of Ari Aster’s ‘Midsommar’

The ‘Hereditary’ director micro-manages the mania in his new film


×
×