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Book Review: The Watchtower by Elizabeth Harrower

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The Watchtower

Elizabeth Harrower
352pp
$26.95

Reviewer: Julie Szego

An overlooked gem of Australian literature, first published in 1966, The Watch Tower explores the abuse of power so masterfully I found myself wondering if the author’s surname was a play on words. After their father’s death, on the eve of World War II, teenage sisters Laura and Clare Vaizey find themselves abandoned in Sydney. Their mother — a caricature of wickedness — returns to England. Laura retires her ambition to study medicine and goes to work in a box factory. She hopes that her sacrifice will at least enable Clare to finish school. When Laura’s boss, Felix, offers to take care of the sisters and even marry Laura —“I’ll fix everything” — it seems ungracious and absurd not to accept. The sisters move into his house on the glittering harbour, an incongruous prison camp, as Felix unleashes his tyranny.

Reading the novel, the emotion that most plagued me was guilt. Not for nothing is Felix described as possessing “that superior smile and its odd suggestion of complicity.” Above all else, he’s ravenous for an audience. And I was riveted, sickened but nonetheless riveted, to observe the sisters, when hearing his footsteps, “examine their souls for defects … cross themselves, and wait.” I was ghoulishly fascinated by Felix’s repressed homoeroticism — he’s a sucker for young conmen — that manifests as misogyny. From Laura, he gets utter capitulation. Having “resigned away the trust she had been given to be herself,” she’s forever polishing, wiping, book-keeping, apologising. My empathy for her ebbed away in spite of myself. From Clare he seeks a creepy daughterly affirmation — she feigns it. Protective of her inner life, Clare, a lover of 19th century Russian literature, bears witness to events from a metaphorical watchtower, dreaming of freedom. Yet even she concedes, “it was amazing to stand within yards of a human being so charged with loathing.” Only once a European refugee enters their lives does change emerge as a possibility. Harrower’s storytelling is both forensic and haunting — even the syntax labours under repression with sentences breaking midstream and resistance ghettoised in brackets: “(If only you could trust him!)” And the reader is caught in a suffocating embrace between hope and futility that persists beyond the last page.

Reviewed by: Ms Julie Szego, Lawyer, Journalist and Author

Julie Szego worked as a lawyer before switching to journalism. She worked for 12 years at The Age as a social affairs reporter, senior writer, leader writer and columnist. Now a freelance journalist, she writes a fortnightly column for The Age, contributes to various journals and magazines, and teaches journalism at Monash University and creative non-fiction at Melbourne University. Her first non-fiction book, The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, was shortlisted for both the Victorian and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for 2015.

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