Book review: The Watch Tower

The Watch TowerThe Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn’t really a book I can say I enjoyed. It’s masterfully written, yes, and lives up to the forgotten treasure billing Harrower’s works have been given – but Jesus, it’s a difficult thing to get through.

Set in ’40s Sydney, it’s a story of constriction. Two sisters are marooned by their couldn’t-give-a-shit mother. An arranged marriage with an older man seals their fates, robbing them of educational opportunities and forcing them into servitude in the suburbs. Add in some on-again, off-again alcoholism and some domestic violence and misogyny and you’ve all the making of a Real Fun Time. Not.

Emptiness and inertia are key to the book. There’s a distrust of the status quo, of commercialism and the drive to have a family and keep a home, as well as a lamentation of the lack of individualism which seems to pervade the culture of ration books and black marketeering. In the city by the harbour, everyone seems a cut-out. This excerpt just about covers it:

They thought they knew what they were saying! They thought that what they said had meaning! Girls were bewitched by their own ability to curl their hair and embroider hideous daisies on hideous teacloths. Boys boasted because they could eat five potatoes with a roast dinner. Oh, accomplished! Oh, somnambulists! Silence, everyone!

Harrower’s work is simply, evocatively presented. There’s a breezy lightness to the prose – its descriptions of nature and of the joy of the ferry are pretty much second-to-none. But the subject matter almost outweighs the author’s light touch. The spectre of domestic violence, the robbery of vitality and the struggle to escape the control of an older man wring out the reader as they do the sisters of the pages.

I’m very glad I read this, though I’m uncertain I’d re-read it. It’s a bit like some of Christos Tsiolkas’ work – you know it’s important, you know it’s wonderfully constructed, but it’s a bit like spending time voluntarily robbing yourself of air with a plastic bag: unremittingly brutal. Even when there’s not actual violence on the page, The Watch Tower slips in a couple of jabs to ensure you’re paying attention.

It’s great Text Publishing are keeping this work in print, and it’s made me want to seek out more of Harrower’s work. It’s just something – like the film The Boys – that is almost better as an idea than it is to consume.

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