I've now made stopping in Bellingham at the used-and-new neighbors Eclipse Books and Village Books a required part of my annual ten-hour drive home from the backwoods of British Columbia: nothing makes the driving go faster than having that reward waiting just as the home stretch begins. This year I made good time so I had even more leisure than usual to poke through the shelves and stacks at Eclipse,* and I came away with books by Mary Robison, John Keegan, and Janet Hobhouse, an illustrated edition of The Innocent Voyage--also known as the greatest novel ever, A High Wind in Jamaica--and, finally, my first copy of Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, a book I owe some substantial thanks to.
But my real find so far came from my second stop. Village Books is not a store that sits back and waits for you to find its hidden treasures. It puts them right in front of you, to the point where it almost feels like there are more books on "Recommended" shelves than regular ones. And on one of them I was drawn to a bright cover and a shelf-talker from "Rem" whose recommendation I can't remember anymore, though I think it had something to do with a "portrait of addiction."
I had never heard of the title or the author--The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower--and when I opened it, I read this on the first page:
'Now that your father's gone--'
Stella Vaizey saw the two faces jerk, to an even sharper alertness, and hesitated. What a pair of pedants they were! What sticklers, George Washingtons, optimists!
I'm a little leery of the cult of the opening sentence, but wow. The "even sharper alertness" (a masterful shorthand to put you in a story that's already moving), and the breezy and inventive insults ("George Washingtons"!), which, it's quickly apparent, are cast toward these two girls by their mother! I was caught in the gears of this engine immediately. I always have such a backlog of books that it's rare I start reading a new purchase right away, but this one I dove into at dinner a half-hour later, and by the time I was back on the road I knew it was a keeper.
It is a "portrait of addiction," but even more so it's a portrait of isolation. I won't say too much about the plot except that it's about two sisters who live first with a woman and then with a man--both horrible, horrible people--and in both cases are almost bewilderingly isolated, although they are on the outskirts of Australia's largest city. To me the real marvel of the book is the way it makes the limitations of their world palpable and believable, makes you see and believe how two bright and ambitious young women can burrow their way into a life of darkness and disconnection from anything outside them, and how they--to the extent they do--can burrow their way out as well.
I've spent much of the last five years or so under the sway of a few books--A High Wind in Jamaica, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Transit of Venus--and The Watch Tower shares elements and qualities with all of them: the unsentimentality toward families and childhood of High Wind, the almost giddy astringency of Jean Brodie, and the two Australian sisters, indifferently parented, of Transit of Venus. Add in the claustrophobic, incestuous horror of McEwan's The Concrete Garden and a malign Australian patriarch in Felix Shaw who, I suspect--since I still haven't read all of TMWLC--is a rival for The Man Who Loved Children's Sam Pollit, and you have an impressive equation. And The Watch Tower is not only similar to those books, but very much in their league, which from me is as high as praise gets. It's the best novel I've read in I don't know how long.
Some of the book's few Amazon reviewers were fed up with the book's unrelenting misery, and with the datedness of its language and sexual politics. The miserable limits on the sisters' lives are indeed unrelenting, but there is something about the clarity with which the misery is observed--by the narrator, and sometimes by the sisters--that makes it, well, bearable is the wrong word, but intensely compelling, at least for me. The sexual politics--the almost unlimited power a parent or a husband can have over a girl or a woman--are, I guess and I hope, dated, but they remain human. And the language may be dated, but only in a way that makes it even more fresh to a modern reader, and it's composed with such intelligence and concision that I expect it will always seem fresh.
The book is set in the '40s and was published in 1966. I haven't learned much more about Elizabeth Harrower (what a name for a writer with her powers!) than what the book itself says: her biography there speaks of her career in the past tense, but says she still lives in Sydney. The Watch Tower was the last of her four novels, and I'm inclined to pursue the rest, and the Text Classics series it's a part of too. Text Classics turns out to be a reprint series of Australian classics, and if this edition is any indication--beautifully designed and wonderfully bound in a sturdy paperback that's a pleasure to hold and read--maybe they are the NYRB Classics of Down Under. I don't know how Rem at Village Books discovered this one (here are his online recommendations, by the way)--at first I imagined they might be the only place in the U.S. stocking this Australian edition. But this reissue looks to have gotten some U.S. review attention (Michael Dirda likes it too!), and Amazon stocks it as well as a number of other recent Text Classics. (I wonder who is distributing them?) But of course you can order it from Village Books as well, and I suggest you do!
* I have to include a photo from Eclipse, which, among other things, has to have the best back door in bookselling, open to the the breezes and the brightness of Puget Sound. The whole store is full of this kind of light (and, yes, these kinds of stacks on the floor).