A harrowing, relentlessly oppressive book, about real people in a real world, set in mid-20th Century Sydney. It starts with newly-widowed, narcissistic mother Stella's abuse and exploitation of her two daughters, and probable theft of their inheritance, although their late doctor father also never showed any warmth towards or interest in them. In the beginning, the story seems to be that of Laura, the elder daughter, but later it clearly becomes more associated with Clare, who seems to look at the world almost as an objective, impartial observer (a view that is restricted by her own lack of education and experience), presumably giving the book its title. It becomes clear that this is the only way Clare can protect herself from the miseries of their existence, and the nastiness of people who have major influence over her life. In fact, through most of the book, her opinion is never asked, but she is simply expected to comply with the wishes and expectations of others.
Stella conveniently departs for England at the beginning of the War, leaving the still-teenaged girls to fend for themselves. Felix is clearly a misogynistic, latent (?) homosexual, who for various psychological reasons (on the evidence, I'd say he's also bipolar, and an alcoholic), derives fundamental pleasure from abusing, humiliating and terrorising women, although he is sufficiently driven and well-organised to build successful businesses, which he then squanders by trying to gain love and/or friendship from devious younger male con-men and drifters. Felix has a very simplistic and demeaning, stereotyped, despising opinion of women, throwing trinkets at Laura and constantly demanding her gratitude and servitude in return. While she doesn't really want any of this, she feels it best to express what she thinks he wants to hear, just to maintain peace, and in the hope that he'll come round, and see what a good person she is. The reader continuously sits on edge of his/her seat, awaiting a terrible outcome from numerous trivial but tense situations that arise, but this thankfully never eventuates - although it certainly allows one to empathise sharply with the two girls, as well as proving frustrating, given their reluctance to do anything about leaving Felix (but for good reasons, as where could they go, and who would believe them?).
There is so much unstated and unexplained, details you have to fill in for yourself. We are shown only glimpses into the protagonists' lives. Felix meets desirable younger men in the pub, and tries to ingratiate himself by entering into business deals at great disadvantage to himself, obviously in a display of magnanimity, attempting to prove what a decent, generous and successful man he is, thus hoping to draw them closer into his life. His failure to succeed then leads him to vent his disappointment, anger and frustration at the unfortunate and naïve women he has entrapped.
While it is easy to criticise Laura for her weakness, blindness to, acceptance of and constant rationalisation of Felix's abominable behaviour, we must not forget her own very warped and restricted upbringing, and the times in which this occurred. Living in constant fear mixed with vain hope, she succumbs to Felix's malign manipulations which, in the end, really destroy him as much as those around him. And, after all, he did feed and clothe her, even though she worked for him virtually as a slave - but her own poor self-esteem ensured that she conveniently overlooked her own substantial and important contributions to his various businesses. He constantly schemes up new ways of degrading the women in his life, while pandering to the odd males who turn up, at great disadvantage to himself, in the constant hope of enticing them into his web (in which the girls are inescapably trapped, mainly because of their own lack of esteem and worldly experience). While sex is not mentioned, once it is stated they sleep in separate beds, so it does seem that Felix is a frustrated homosexual and, if his past in the Royal Navy and boarding schools can be believed, it all fits.
This all changes with the arrival of young Dutchman Bernard, who is drawn into the family circle by Felix, with his ulterior motives, and fantasies of maybe having a surrogate son or future male companion, but with impossible strings that later would be attached. Clare is cynical, of course, as she's seen it all before, but her maternal instincts are drawn out by the young man's illness and vulnerability - and it is not long before she realises he is genuine, and can see through Felix. Bernard does not in any way want to be beholden to his potential "benefactor", and withdraws from his clutches as soon as practicable. He manages to convince Clare to do the same (which she has been dreaming of doing for years, but always reversing her decision at the last minute at the admonishment of her sister, and in fear of what might happen to Laura). While we wonder about any romantic attachment that Clare might have to Bernard, towards the end it becomes obvious that she's not interested in him, whereas the reverse might apply, as he starts to show an interest in her welfare and in her as a human being.
Sadly, this is too believable a story, for characters like Felix certainly do exist, and make the lives of all around them abjectly miserable, while deluding themselves that it is everybody else's fault, his own motives and self-sacrifice being pure.show more
by Paul Prociv