Litterateur Ramona Koval recently recorded a couple of videos on SlowTV about a recovered Australian classic, ‘The Watch Tower’ by Elizabeth Harrower. Inveterate reader Jim Morgan decides to take up the tale.
THE WATCH TOWER
by Elizabeth Harrower
Macmillan 1966, Text Classics 2012 $12.95
Until Mrs. Vaizey announced she was going back to wartime Britain, small businessman Felix Shaw had always addressed her daughter Laura, his employee, as ‘You’. So that his suggestion they should marry surprised everyone but suited Mrs. Vaizey plans, whose going back home was made possible by the unlikely union, one that would have seemed more belonging among marriages of convenience in a previous century.
There’s not one shred of evidence to show that Mrs. Vaizey loved her daughters or that Felix loved Laura, yet Claire was snared by her sister’s dependency on Felix Shaw and the new house with a harbour view. ‘Clare looked about the pretty room that would be hers if Laura chose for some bizarre reason to belong to Felix Shaw.’ She could look out on from her ‘watch tower’, becoming more like an observer or narrator than her sister Laura, an undoubted prisoner for whom there is no escape. But all windows were part of the look-out tower. ‘No one has ever known we were here.’
Despite my increasing age I wonder what this evil dwarf Laura has married gets up to in the matrimonial bed they undoubtedly share, because we are told so. Does she take perverse pleasure in her humiliation by this new experience with a man twenty years older than her? Evidently, what happened at night was not carried forward like the petty cash balance to the next day. We are told, ‘Laura feels buoyant in her new world.’ After school’s ‘juggernaut lunacy, lamb chops and the price of peas, new things were happening’ — better than school and talking to boys whose conversation consisted of boasting ‘they could eat five potatoes with a roast dinner’. The wedding takes place the same day as Mrs. Vaizey departs with the convoy.
This was a time before pharmacists gave customers a mandatory lecture on their medication and the chemist ‘liked to talk to Mrs Shaw. He liked her gentle, worried, creamy face with dimples in it.’ Such was the simplicity of life in Sydney at the end of World War II. Meanwhile Felix Shaw’s ‘dark brilliant eyes looked out from under the curving satanic brows, the malicious smile never tired.’ His wife kept days and nights in separate compartments the way Felix did his various business accounts.
This is an excruciating story of sisters caught up in the toils of an evil and pathetic man and their eventual rescue, or at least that of Clare by Bernard, an asylum seeker of the day, whose strength and wish to help his family breaks the spell, just like in a fairytale — this superbly written, acutely observed, tale.
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Guest reviewer, James Waite Morgan, ex-pastoralist and novelist: Parakeet, Loving Helen, The Artist’s Wife, Fat of the Land — is the biographer of his grandparents, S.A. men in The Premier and the Pastoralist.