Stella Vaizey, it turns out, is more wicked stepmother than mother, a heartless, self-centered creature worthy of Evelyn Waugh at his most savage. Her “interest in bridge outstripped by light-years any other feeling ever to have moved her.” While she lounges in bed maintaining her beautiful complexion, her two daughters do all the household chores, and the gifted Laura, who once dreamed of becoming a doctor, attends a glorified secretarial school.
Eventually, Laura finds a job in a box factory, where she helps keep the books for its “swarthy nuggety” owner, Felix Shaw, who for all his misogynist vulgarity possesses a flair for business. Laura hopes that her sacrifice will help save Clare from a similar destiny, or even allow her sister to go back to their old school. One day, while mopping the floor in their flat, she broaches this idea to her mother:
“ ‘It’s hard on you, Laura.’ Mrs. Vaizey looked up from her magazine and trailed an arm along the back of the sofa.
“ ‘I wondered,’ Laura leaned on the mop and picked at a loose flake of green paint on the handle. ‘I wondered if — out of what Dad left — you couldn’t — ’
“Stella Vaizey shook her head and gave her daughter an oddly calculating smile. ‘I’ve told you how we’re placed. You know as well as I do what your father was like.’ Shaking her head again, she lifted a fine china teacup (one of the few relics saved from the sale) from the small table by her side.
“Laura left the paint alone and looked at her mother tenaciously, still leaning her weight on the mop.
“ ‘You’ll break that, Laura! — No, I suggest we put it to someone in the Education Department that we must have Clare at the local high school.’ Her small white teeth snapped a little coconut biscuit in two. She ate one half of the biscuit with paralyzing slowness, watching Laura all the while in a bright, patient, impersonal way.
“Laura took a deep breath through her mouth, pressed her lips together and lunged away with the mop, starting to push it to and fro over the varnished boards surrounding the emerald carpet. ‘No. They only give them domestic science courses here. I’ve got this rise. We’ll manage.’
“ ‘If your father had thought of this instead of those stupid investments of his — ’ Popping the other half of the biscuit into her mouth, she dusted her fingertips lightly together. ‘Look, I’ve sprinkled crumbs on your clean floor.’ ”
Eventually, Mrs. Vaizey decides that really she needs to live in England and makes plans to leave her daughters. They can be bachelor girls together! But when Felix Shaw unexpectedly proposes to Laura, Mrs. Vaizey persuades her that the businessman, more than 20 years the girl’s senior, would be a good catch, especially since he’ll allow Clare to live with them.
While Laura soon works tirelessly at the box factory as well as keeping house and cooking hot meals, her husband gradually reveals his true colors. He requires constant attention, praise and, above all, an audience. He must win every game. “When you come back,” Felix tells Laura one night, “I’ll beat you at dominoes for the fifth time running. I hope you know that. I hope you know what a fourth-rate brain you’ve got. Do you?”
Felix, it turns out, is also a creature of violent mood swings and sudden impulses. More surprisingly, he is powerfully drawn to good-looking young men, whose friendship he covets but who typically treat him with disdain. Yet he longs to please them, even going so far as to sell his successful box factory for a pittance to one of them. But each of his pathetic gestures to cement a closer relationship with some handsome boon companion inevitably fails, and he turns his consequent rage on his young wife and her sister. Felix, of course, never quite recognizes his homosexual inclinations.
While Felix, Laura and Clare are the main characters in the book, Harrower is adept at bringing life to minor figures with just a sentence or two: “Rationing had soured Mrs. Cochrane. She abominated letter-writing, but so many of her neighbours indulged in black-marketeering that she was obliged to keep in touch constantly, anonymously, with the Government.” Harrower can pierce your heart just as quickly: “Laughing was something Clare felt she could be good at one day.” Virtually all the men, with a single exception, regard women with indifference, as either amusements or unfeeling robot-servants. Some, like Clare, fight for their independence. Others, like Laura, almost imperceptibly slip into victimhood. Such is life.
“The obstacles were unarguably too great. Who could break out? Who could do more than marvel dully at survival? Who had energy and initiative now to spare for what was merely reasonable? What promise had the world held out ever that there was anything to escape to? What was there to desire in this nightmare but the cessation of strain?”
As the years go by, Felix grows increasingly domineering, drinks more and more, and periodically lashes out at his good-for-nothing, worthless wife. Laura patiently rationalizes the vileness, picks up the broken pieces and even comes to believe that Clare’s desire for freedom, for respect, for a better life, is simply unrealistic. One really has no choice and, besides, things aren’t all that bad. Are they?
At this point, Harrower’s mesmerizing novel is only at its halfway point, and I’ll say no more.
Except to add that “The Watch Tower” is part of a new series devoted to key works of Australian literature by, among others, Henry Handel Richardson, Sumner Locke Elliott, Madeleine St. John and Kate Grenville. Text Classics, in effect, presents American readers with an entire continent of fiction and storytelling: There’s far more to literature Down Under than “Waltzing Matilda” and the works of Patrick White. While some of the first batch of Text Classic titles are lighthearted, many more, like “The Watch Tower,” are suffused with yearning, loneliness and desperation. Could this be the fundamental Australian condition? I’m especially looking forward to reading Kenneth Cook’s “Wake in Fright,” described as “the original and the greatest outback horror story.”It, too, looks harrowing.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.