June 2012

Arts & Letters

‘The Watch Tower’ by Elizabeth Harrower

By Michelle de Kretser
'The Watch Tower' by Elizabeth Harrower, Text Publishing; $12.95

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.

From the front page

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

In This Issue

An Australian light armoured vehicle, Tangi Valley, Afghanistan, March 2011. © SPC Eward Garibay/ISAF

Winning Enemies

George Pell, Anzac service, 24 April 2009. © AAP/Jenny Evans

A New Opium

The Anzac cult

Panel from 'Sensitive Creatures'. © Mandy Ord

Memory Palaces

Australia’s budding graphic novel scene

Cate Blanchett and Robert Menzies in STC's 'Big and Small'. © Lisa Tomasetti

She’s not there

The curious case of Cate Blanchett


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Still from ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’

One small step: ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’ and ‘Deep Water’

Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped film evokes the optimism of late-1960s America, while Patricia Highsmith’s thriller gets another disappointing adaptation

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, ‘Dibirdibi country’ (2008

Art heist: The landmark conviction of an Aboriginal art centre’s manager

The jailing of Mornington Island Art’s chief executive for dishonest dealing has shone a light on ethics and colonialism in the Indigenous art world


More in Noted

Cover of Robert Lukins’ ‘Loveland’

‘Loveland’

Robert Lukins’ second novel takes a Brisbane woman to Nebraska, where an inheritance sparks a change in character as well as in fortune

Still from ‘We Own This City’

‘We Own This City’

David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’, returns to Baltimore for a present-day examination of rapacious police corruption

Still from ‘Slow Horses’

‘Slow Horses’

A sardonic Gary Oldman heads a misfit branch of MI5 in Apple TV+’s thrilling exploration of personal motivation and political expedience

Image from ‘The Golden Cockerel’

‘The Golden Cockerel’

Barrie Kosky’s Adelaide production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera satirising the Russo-Japanese War came with uneasy resonances


Online exclusives

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history