AUSTRALIAN AUTHOR Elizabeth Harrower’s fourth novel The Watch Tower sat on my shelf for months amongst many other novels and non-fiction books waiting to be read.
My decision to buy the book may have been influenced by Joan London’s compelling introduction in this 2012 edition. Or, possibly, Michelle de Kretser’s quote on the back cover:
“A brilliant novel by a scandalously overlooked writer.”
Either way, with two highly regarded Australian authors praising the work in an excellent marketing strategy, I finally sat down to read The Watch Tower and didn’t shift for several hours.
What I discovered was a writer who is able to vividly grasp the psyche and physical world of her two main characters, Laura and Clare Vaizey, as they grow from young girls in 1940’s rural Australia, to women weary beyond their years in post World War II Sydney.
Harrower’s writing shows a devastating understanding of the complexities of familial relationships, dysfunction, psychological endurance in the face of constant tension and the innate urge to survive beyond intimate fear and the inequity of social expectations of that time. The question about what the future holds for sisters Laura and Clare Vaizey looms large over every page.
With a father recently deceased and no financial support, their mother Stella Vaizey, removes the girls from their rural boarding school where Laura had dreamed of becoming a doctor like her father, or even an opera singer. Clare, at nine years old, is still too young to know what career she would like to pursue.
Laura is seven years older than Clare and adjusts to life at a city business college while her sister goes to a new school. At her mother’s behest, she assumes responsibility for managing the upstairs flat they take in Manly as Stella convalesces and resolves to carve out a new life for herself. She is still young and hopes to find a wealthy husband and live life in a less brash society more suited to her British heritage.
It’s in this environment that Laura’s misguided loyalty and habit for making excuses for the behavior of those closest to her to the detriment of herself begins to take hold while a young Clare observes, analyses and begins to adjust her own behaviour to suit.
Felix Shaw is a businessman who is a success at making bad business decisions but manages to make a good living in spite of this. But there is something more about the legality of his business dealings that remains undefined. It’s decided that marriage to Felix, who is much older than Laura, is a “pleasant solution” to the sisters’ care when Stella returns to England. But what eventuates is a life that sees Laura gradually lose herself to the cruel and calculated whims of a controlling Felix.
“Home was only a word now. In many ways this house had charms and advantages that the other one had lacked; the only thing was, she did not care much about anything any more. She had been intimidated far beyond the place where she had imagined the limit to be. There was nothing to be relied on anywhere now except the presence of violence in Felix and his power to inflict punishments. Yet she was obliged to feel that he had been hurt in this shape and not created in it. Otherwise – “
Laura learns to conceal her thoughts and feelings for fear tipping Felix over the edge. Clare develops this skill out of necessity too, but manages to maintain an emotional distance that allows her observation of events to make the reader believe that there is yet hope for her.
While other characters in The Watch Tower appear on the margins of Laura and Clare’s life, it’s the presence of young Bernard that is the real catalyst for change.
It occurred to me that while Harrower’s novel is heavy with the powerlessness of Clare and Laura in this affluent suburb of Neutral Bay with its harbour views (first published by Macmillan in 1966), Ruth Park’s classic novel Harp In The South (first published by Angus & Robertson in 1948) is set across the Harbour Bridge in the inner city suburb of Surry Hills in roughly the same time with characters that are financially poor but rich in the robustness of a loving family life.
This week Elizabeth Harrower’s collection of short stories A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories published by Text Publishing, was announced as one of 12 longlist finalists in the 2016 Stella Prize. The Stella Prize celebrates Australian women’s contribution to literature with the winner to be announced in Sydney on April 19, 2016.
Also by Elizabeth Harrower
Down in the City
The Long Prospect
The Catherine Wheel