Every now and again, I’ll read a novel and be overwhelmed in a couple of pages by the assuredness of the writing. This was one such novel. There was a great deal of buzz when Text Publishing released Elizabeth Harrower’s 1966 novel ‘The Watchtower’ and the ABC Book Club reviewed it, piquing my interest. Harrower only released four novels, all critically acclaimed in the 50s and 60s, although in the 70s and 80s she continued to write short fiction. This fifth novel was written in the late sixties but Harrower withdrew it from its intended publication in 1971: Text Publishing have released it now this year. It is extraordinarily crafted. I felt keen to keep returning to it and finish it, despite the fact that there is not a great deal of dramatic action within the plot. The novel revolves around five people, whose lives have been deeply intertwined since their teenaged years. Zoe and her brother Russell are from a wealthy, educated Sydney family: at the beginning of the novel, we see Russell returned from the war and settling back into life with his fiancée Lily, also from a well-to-do family. Zoe is finishing school, smart as a whip, and a cool patrician beauty to match. From the first page we are introduced to orphaned brother and sister, Stephen and Anna, who Russell has collected like stray puppies and taken under his wing. The class divide is set up between the two groups, and the omniscient narrator explores the complexity of understanding between those who ‘have’ in life, and those who ‘have not’.
Harrower articulates the inner life of women so well, and a range of women, not just one type. Zoe’s complicated relationship with Stephen is such a sophisticated portrait of a marriage in which a man controls a seemingly uncontrollable woman:
‘From riding the crest of the wave, from taming tigers, she had turned into this new thing – a suppliant, but a suppliant with a purpose: all to be well with Stephen. She had fallen through him into the universe, into her real self. Yet he was only free spasmodically, as though secret jailers had him secretly imprisoned somewhere, releasing and confining and tormenting according to some erratic timetable of their own’.
The question of work is explored in the novel as well, for both the male and female characters; the character of Lily, while a bit overdone at times, was most poignant when held in relation to her depression at her children leaving home. There was a passage about women living only for their children or marriage and giving up their working lives that I found so breath taking, especially given the time when Harrower was writing:
‘What I do understand is that at any point in a woman’s life she may come across something like a cement pyramid in the middle of the road. Another person. People. She’s capable of sitting there, convinced that it would be impossible to forsake her position, till it becomes a private Thermopylae. This sort of block was probably designed for the survival of our species, but the cost’s high. What makes men superior is that they don’t – on the whole – stop functioning forever because of another person. They lack this built-in handicap, and are they lucky!’
I’m sure Harrower’s generation felt this sentiment as keenly as our own generation, still grappling with maintaining one’s identity, but it is impressive to see it in print in the sixties, and so insightfully articulated.
Despite the beautifully formal dialogue and references to the war, this novel could be placed at any time. The setting really could have been anywhere as well, but there are enough pleasing references to Sydney to give this Australian novel the feeling of home:
‘Zoe had wakened in this square stone house on the north side of Sydney Harbour, and learned soon afterwards from her family and their friends that she was remarkable. There was a big garden. There were people of her own size for company. At the end of the short street of old houses in long-established gardens was a white curved beach with rocks, rock pools, very small waves, shells, pebbles, fine sand. She swam before she walked’.
This is the second Text Publishing re-release that I have read: I reviewed and enjoyed Madeleine St John’s novel ‘The Women in Black’ from the same period in Sydney. I salute Text for valuing what has gone before us, what women have contributed to literature, and keeping alive a love for Australian writing. I’ll be reading more.
*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014