Friday, 26 April 2013

Australian Literature Month: The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower

The Watch Tower
Elizabeth Harrower
Text Classics
9781921922428


I once heard this book described by Ramona Koval at the Perth Writer's Festival as being 'scandalously under-read.'  Considering that a) I had never heard of Elizabeth Harrower before, and b) I enjoyed this book immensely, I would have to agree.

The Watch Tower is about two sisters, Laura and Clare who are abandoned by their selfish, diva of a mother after the death of their beloved father.  Laura resolves herself to a life which will not be how she imagined, sacrificing dreams of singing opera or becoming a doctor in order to help raise Clare, but Clare regards herself as the "Only Russian in Sydney" because of her fondness for Tolstoy and the likes, and stubbornly digs her heels in against the notion that she cannot achieve more than her lot.  Laura is sent to work in a cardboard box factory for a man named Felix Shaw, a  shady business-man with manic depressive tendencies and an alcohol abuse problem (although she will not find these things out until much later).  Felix has a habit of making his businesses profitable and then selling them to his so-called friends, whom he consequently never sees again.  He is fond of Laura because she is efficient and submissive.  When her mother leaves Sydney for England, leaving the girls behind, Laura goes to Mr Shaw with her problems- first and foremost, that she does not want Clare to leave school.  Felix proposes to Laura in a business-like manner, theoretically ending the fairytale, but actually beginning the nightmare.


What makes this book so riveting is the elegance of its simplicity.  Harrower's style is more traditional and influenced by the upright storytelling techniques of English writers in the early twentieth century, but her setting is recognisably Sydney.  In particular Clare is made to make the most astute observations put in bitingly accurate terms.  It is these observations and not the plot itself that seem to be the focal point of the story.  Several times, the narrative jumps ahead in years with only a paragraph break to signify this has happened.  The effect is a magnification of the hopelessness of Laura and Clare's situation, and an occasional bout of confusion for the reader.

This is a charming, horrifying, captivating novel.

Four out of five.

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