Welcome to the Monthly Book.
Each month Ramona Koval chooses a book, provides reading notes and posts a video interview. She hosts a live online conversation with readers at the end of the month.
THE WATCH TOWER AND THE LONG PROSPECT – ELIZABETH HARROWER
When Elizabeth Harrower’s 1966 novel, The Watch Tower, was republished in 2012, after being out of print for many years, I read it for the first time. Now regarded as a classic, it is the story of two sisters who are abandoned by their self-indulgent mother after the death of their father.
The setting is Sydney in the 1940s. Laura, the eldest, who had ambitions to be a doctor like her father or else a singer, is removed from her boarding school and enrolled in a Sydney business school. She finds a job as a typist in a box factory, and, in order to look after her younger sister Clare, she agrees to marry the 44-year-old owner, Felix, who controls the women with a mixture of purse string–holding and hysteria. He is a study of alcoholic inadequacy, a man who regards Laura and Clare as his servants. Laura becomes both afraid of Felix and complicit with him, trying to bring Laura into her orbit around him.
I read The Watch Tower with a mixture of fascination and horror. It was impossible to put down. I saw several episodes in my own life mirrored in its pages. I wondered whether the course of my life might have changed had I read it earlier. The answer is probably not. It’s the kind of book that you might only recognise in hindsight, such is the strength of blind optimism in the young. Or at least that was what I was like. Optimistic and fatalistic, I thought you had to accept meekly what life throws your way. Now I know better.
The Long Prospect was written before The Watch Tower, published in 1958. Again, Harrower’s brilliance in writing about psychological and social torment is evident. This novel is set in an industrial town rather like Newcastle (where, although she was born in Sydney, Harrower grew up and lived till she was 11).
Emily, a child who is attracted to books and learning and mathematics and science, is living with her rather coarse grandmother Lilian, while her mother, Paula, is in Sydney making ends meet. Her father is partly estranged from them, living in another country town. Emily becomes close to Max, a middle-aged scientist who also lodges with Lilian. He is the first adult to take an interest in Emily and extends her intellectual development under the critical and suspicious eye of her grandmother and their scandal-mongering and snobbish neighbours.
Today, the kind friendship of a man for a promising and neglected girl might well be viewed with suspicion. In Harrower’s deft and deeply sympathetic hands, the story of Emily and her troubled home stays with you long after the book is finished.
In both these books, Elizabeth Harrower’s genius for psychological insight shines through, as does her facility for language – whether she is describing geographical landscapes or internal landscapes of the human heart.
Admired by her contemporaries Patrick White and Christina Stead, it’s a mystery that Elizabeth Harrower’s work has been neglected for such a long time. Here is my interview with Elizabeth Harrower, now 85 years old, conducted recently in her flat high above the streets of Cremorne in Sydney, where she spoke about her life and work.
To watch Ramona's interview with Elizabeth Harrower, click here. Our live-stream discussion will take place on Tuesday, 23 July 2013.
Read the transcript of Ramona’s interview with Elizabeth Harrower.
Watch Ramona discuss the books with Gay Alcorn.