Recently our Book Club read “Stoner”, a wonderful 1965 novel by John Williams which had gone out of print until its success in France led to its reissue in the United States. It reminded me that one of the books on my 'Hope to Get To' list had a similar history. I had read an article in the New Yorker about Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower, whose works had been out of print for many years until, in 2012, the Australian publishing house Text reissued them and persuaded her to publish her last novel, which she had withdrawn just before it was to be released in 1971. The article declared The Watch Tower to be her greatest novel, so I decided it was time to read another forgotten work.
Although the story is set in the Australia of the 1940's, I kept being reminded of novels from earlier times. Laura and Clare Vaizey are not orphans like Jane Eyre, but they might as well be. Their heartless mother yanks Laura out of her academic high school so that she can support the family, then abandons the girls completely to return to England. Laura sacrifices her own dreams and attempts to save her sister's future by marrying Felix Shaw, her boss at the factory where she works. Harrower describes him as “a swarthy nuggety man of forty-four who looked closer to fifty”. All I could think of was poor Dorothea stuck with boring, insensitive Casaubon in "Middlemarch".
But Felix turns out to be much worse than the pompous Casaubon; in fact, he proudly compares himself to Bluebeard. What follows is a harrowing psychological tale, as Clare attempts to escape the toxic household that Felix has created around Laura and herself. If you've ever wondered why a woman stays in an abusive marriage, this novel provides a vivid case study.
Harrower's language is precise and controlled, sometimes witty, always honest. The story was terrifying, but I couldn't look away.