THE WATCH TOWER | ELIZABETH HARROWER | BOOK REVIEW

It appears this is our week of follow-on books from previously reviewed authors. Kernel Morgan reviewing two books from prolific rose-tinted glasses author Alexander McCall Smith (THE NOVEL HABITS OF HAPPINESS and THE HANDSOME MAN’S DELUXE CAFÉ) and now Kernel Fiona reviewing a not so well known Australian literary classic from Elizabeth Harrower. In the last two weeks we published Kernel Fi’s review of Harrower’s recently released but forty year old book, IN CERTAIN CIRCLES, and now we review one of her other classics that originally released in 1966 but is now being re-released in “classics” format from Text Publishing, THE WATCH TOWER. It is available from all good book stores, or you can obtain it HERE. Enjoy Fi’s review………..all the best…………JK. 

BY FIONA FYFE

Elizabeth Harrower is an author that has been overlooked. So compelling is her writing and so deftly drawn her characters, that it is unfortunate that she hasn’t received more accolades as a great Australian writer. Her first novel was DOWN IN THE CITY followed by THE LONG PROSPECT. THE WATCH TOWER appeared in 1966 and is set in 1940’s Australia with the gentrified northern suburbs as its back drop.

When their medico father dies, teenagers Laura and Clare are moved from their boarding school to live with their mother in a Sydney flat. English born and incredibly selfish, their mother Stella, wants desperately to return to England and forget she ever had the responsibility of children.

The eldest daughter, Laura is a gifted student and dreams of following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a doctor. These aspirations are swiftly squashed and she is sent instead to business school to learn short hand typing. Her mother scoffs at any notion of a girl studying medicine and soon Laura finds herself working as a secretary at a cardboard factory. Clare continues on at a private school but is soon told that the fees are exorbitant so she must either attend the local public school or start working at the factory with Laura.

 

THE WATCH TOWER BOOK COVER IMAGE
THE WATCH TOWER | ELIZABETH HARROWER | SALTY POPCORN BOOK REVIEW | BOOK COVER IMAGE

 

The factory owner, Felix Shaw is a forty-four year old, misogynistic lush who runs his business with an iron fist. He enjoys his female staff scurrying around after him and uses his power to intimidate and bully. He takes a shine to Laura and convinces her that she would be well looked after if she married him. This proposal is highly appealing to Laura’s mother who decides to abandon the girls and return to England. Rather than see Clare forced to leave school at fourteen and both of them left to fend for themselves, she agrees to marry Felix.

Felix has recently acquired a mansion in Manly and sets out to entice and impress Stella. Of course the idea of being able to offload her children to someone else whilst absconding with their inheritance, is simply too good an offer for Stella to refuse. As war breaks out, she sets sail never to see her daughters again.

Twenty-one year old Laura tries valiantly to convince herself that the new life she has secured for herself and Clare will be worth it, even if it means her dreams are destroyed and that Clare must also leave school and attend business college because Felix has gone back on his word. Throughout the book there is a lot of this retraction of promises by Felix. He is in his element when he is dangling carrots in front of his young wife and sister-in-law only to dash their hopes at the eleventh hour.

Felix’s next enterprise is a chocolate factory followed by an artificial flower making venture. Short, dark and swarthy, he likens himself to Bluebeard and is just as menacing. An emotional terrorist in every respect, he treats Laura like a servant and refers to her as “swill” and “vomit”. The other employees at the factory can’t understand why Mrs Shaw puts up with her husband’s degradation. Initially, some of the women in the factory feel sorry for Laura but this eventually turns to disrespect and mockery.

THE WATCH TOWER is indeed a place of entrapment. The house in Manly, while beautiful and charming, is nothing more than a prison for the two sisters. Clare is the feistier of the two and rails against the cruel punishments and rules that Felix imposes. Every time he goes berserk on a drunken rampage, Clare vows to leave the house for good. Each time, Laura threatens her that she will never speak to her again if she abandons her. Clare’s frequent attempts to convince Laura that she must end the marriage are utterly futile. The more sadistic Felix becomes, the harder Laura tries to please him.

“She’s adept at self deception….she thinks he represents security. She thinks he might change and be kind to her. She pities him; that enslaves her.”

 

AUTHOR ELIZABETH HARROWER IMAGE
THE WATCH TOWER | ELIZABETH HARROWER | SALTY POPCORN BOOK REVIEW | AUTHOR ELIZABETH HARROWER IMAGE

 

As Felix falls out with increasingly more of his business cronies and taunts Laura with threats to sell the house, Clare finds herself determined to break free from the nightmare that has become their lives and to head off on her own. Before she makes any concrete plans, Felix takes in young Dutch immigrant Bernard who has been starving himself so he may send money home to his family. It is his dream to eventually study botany at University but first he must convalesce.

Laura willingly places herself in the role of Florence Nightingale and attends to the eighteen year old’s every need. Meanwhile Clare decides to champion his cause and begins approaching universities and committees to try and secure him a scholarship. After months of protracted communication with education boards and faculties, Felix steals Clare’s thunder by announcing that he will cover the cost of any study that Bernard wishes to undertake. He tells Clare that her efforts have been a complete waste of time.

True to form, Felix later reneges on his offer only to discover that a compensation pay out that Bernard’s family were waiting on has come through and he will be able to fit the bill for his own studies. Forever the control freak, Felix is far from pleased that he hasn’t been able to bully or manipulate Bernard with the withdrawal of his financial offer and sets off on another drunken rage that is the catalyst for change.

The tragedy of the novel is that Laura, once such a promising student with dreams of her own, fully succumbs to her tyrannical husband. This is domestic violence at its worst with Laura scared witless of Felix but always making excuses for his behaviour. Clare implores her “ what is there here for you? Nothing but misery. He hates you. He tortures you. All of us. It’s his only pleasure. For God’s sake Laura. Are you hypnotised?”

Beautifully written and a powerful commentary on the subjugation of women in the 1940’s both in the work place and in the home, Harrower has created a complex array of characters. The psychological tight rope that Laura and Clare must walk on a daily basis is deeply felt by the reader. The book is surely a mini-masterpiece.

 

4 Pops

 

Kernel Fiona was a criminal defence lawyer in a former life and now critiques books and writes short stories. She can’t resist spending large tracts of time in libraries, book shops and at writer’s festivals. Hopelessly in love with the written word, she told JK when applying for a writing position that “I would rather read then breathe” – I knew I had my next reviewer right then.