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
View Edition

From the front page

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time yesterday. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

A web of lies

We may never know when Morrison knew, but there’s no doubt he has lied

Image of Stephen Graham as Joseph McCarthy in The Virtues

Its own reward: ‘The Virtues’

Topping February’s streaming highlights is a four-part series examining trauma and addiction, propelled by Stephen Graham’s affecting performance

Image of ‘Fragile Monsters’

‘Fragile Monsters’ by Catherine Menon

Memories of the Malayan Emergency resurface when a mathematician returns to her home country, in the British author’s debut novel

In light of recent events

Track your vaccine with Australia Post

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

Still from ‘Nomadland’

Drawn to the drift: Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’

The award-winning film about America’s itinerants steers away from the darker stories of the working poor

Image of ‘Untitled (Death Song)’, 2020. Artwork by Megan Cope.

Listening to country: ‘Fractures & Frequencies’ and ‘Infractions’

Elegiac installations from Megan Cope and Rachel O’Reilly at UNSW Galleries call for an understanding of the land as a living entity under threat

Image of Rose Riebl

The composition of emotion: Rose Riebl

The pianist and contemporary classical composer bringing a virtuosic touch to minimalism

Still from ‘It's a Sin’

Pride and prejudice: ‘It’s a Sin’

‘Years and Years’ creator Russell T. Davies turns his attention to the despair, anger and protective humour of the gay community in HIV/AIDS-era Britain


More in Noted

Image of ‘The Committed’

‘The Committed’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The philosophical thriller sequel to ‘The Sympathizer’ sends its Vietnamese protagonists to the Paris underworld

Image of Black Country, New Road’s ‘For the first time’

‘For the first time’ by Black Country, New Road

The debut from the latest British Art School Band delivers perfect pop with arch lyrics that owe a debt to Jarvis Cocker

Image of ‘Fragile Monsters’

‘Fragile Monsters’ by Catherine Menon

Memories of the Malayan Emergency resurface when a mathematician returns to her home country, in the British author’s debut novel

’Purrukuparli ngirramini’ © Harold Porkilari

‘TIWI’ at the National Gallery of Victoria

A must-see exhibition of Tiwi art from Bathurst and Melville islands, in which historical and contemporary media and imagery fuse


Read on

Image of Stephen Graham as Joseph McCarthy in The Virtues

Its own reward: ‘The Virtues’

Topping February’s streaming highlights is a four-part series examining trauma and addiction, propelled by Stephen Graham’s affecting performance

Image of Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl performing in 2019.

Celebrity misinformation

The Foo Fighters’ AIDS denialism should be on the record

Still from Minari.

Small glories: ‘Minari’

Childhood memories are suffused with an adult’s insight in Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film

Image of Eddie McGuire resigning as president of the Collingwood Football Club.

Tumbled Pie

On Eddie McGuire, racism and ‘doing better’


×
×