The Watch Tower

The Watch Tower

3.58 (1,029 ratings by Goodreads)
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Introduced by Joan London
Winner, Patrick White Award 1996

Breaking their poses like trees snapping branches, the women urgently regarded each other, cleared away all signs of work in an instant, examined their souls for defects, in a sense crossed themselves, and waited.

After Laura and Clare are abandoned by their mother, Felix is there to help, even to marry Laura if she will have him. Little by little the two sisters grow complicit with his obsessions, his cruelty, his need to control.

Set in the leafy northern suburbs of Sydney during the 1940s, The Watch Tower is a novel of relentless and acute psychological power.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 338 pages
  • 128 x 198 x 18.54mm | 284g
  • Text Classics
  • Melbourne, Australia
  • English
  • 1921922427
  • 9781921922428
  • 29,779

Review quote

'This is a harrowing novel, relentless in its depiction of marital enslavement, spiritual self-destruction and the exploited condition of women in a masculinist society...It is a brilliant achievement.' * Washington Post * 'To create a monster as continually credible, comic and nauseating as Felix is a feat of a very high order. But to control that creation, as Miss Harrower does, so that Clare remains the centre of interest is an achievement even more rare. The Watch Tower is a triumph of art over virtuosity.... a dense, profoundly moral novel of our time.' -- H.G. Kippax * Sydney Morning Herald, 19 November 1966 * 'Elizabeth Harrower's thrilling 1966 novel The Watch Tower comes rampaging back from decades of disgraceful neglect: a wartime Sydney story of two abandoned sisters and the arrival in their lives of Felix, one of literature's most ferociously realised nasty pieces of work.' -- Helen Garner * The Australian Books of the Year * 'I read this book twice. Once for sheer pleasure - if pleasure can be the correct term for an experience that is so distressing - and once for the purposes of this review...It left me with the strongest sense I have had for a very long time of the infinite preciousness of consciousness, at whatever cost, and of our terrifying human vulnerability.' -- Salley Vickers * Sydney Morning Herald * 'I couldn't put down The Watch Tower, Elizabeth Harrower's dark fairytale of psychological cruelty and co-dependence set in suburban Sydney. Although published originally in 1966 (and reprinted this year by Text Classics), it still has the power to shock. Harrower's insight into the nuances of a pathological personality is forensic, and surely one of the most acute in our literature since Henry Handel Richardson's The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. At the same time, because of its complicated tone, her book retains a kind of mythic power.' -- Delia Falconer * The Australian Books of the Year * 'A superb psychological novel that will creep into your bones.' -- Michelle de Kretser * The Monthly * 'I read The Watch Tower with a mixture of fascination and horror. It was impossible to put down. I then read all Harrower's novels: The Long Prospect (a prescient study of a relationship between a man and a clever but unrecognised young girl), Down in the City and The Catherine Wheel. Her acute psychological assessments are made from gestures, language and glances and she is brilliant on power, isolation and class.' -- Ramona Koval * The Australian Books of the Year * 'Elizabeth Harrower's The Watch Tower truly feels like a neglected classic...I think it's one of the most moving books I've read in a very long time.' -- Mariella Frostrup 'Haunting...Harrower captures brilliantly the struggle to retain a self.' * Guardian UK * `Harrower's greatest novel [is] The Watch Tower (1966), the bitter story of two sisters, Laura and Clare, who lose their parents and fall under the sway of Felix Shaw, an abusive and controlling drunk...[It is] her masterpiece.' -- James Wood * New Yorker * 'Haunting and delicate.' * Kirkus Reviews * 'What a discovery! Harrower's voice in this book is disconcerting at first: almost fatigued, as though she knows that everything to come is fated to be so and there's little to do but tell the story. And her characters-two young sisters-likewise passively accept the events that befall them. This fatalism is absorbing, though, as you watch the women move slowly through a comatose state into a kind of awakening. In fact, the story reminded me at times of A Doll's House-namely, in the younger sister's internal striving for selfhood and independence-but the long tale of the sisters' subjugation is far more excruciating than what Ibsen imagined. * Paris Review Daily * `[A] fantastically incisive portrait of domestic cruelty...For all the psychological torment Harrower subjects her protagonists to, Clare's defiance brings a delectably feminist streak to The Watch Tower.' * Daily Beast * 'The Watch Tower is an enthralling, captivating story about psychological entrapment and the struggle to escape it.' * Shelf Awareness * 'Harrower crafts a gripping, psychologically astute tale...A classic, indeed.' * Shelf Unbound * `Beautifully written and a powerful commentary on the subjugation of women in the 1940's both in the work place and in the home, Harrower has created a complex array of characters. The psychological tight rope that Laura and Clare must walk on a daily basis is deeply felt by the reader. The book is surely a mini-masterpiece.' * Salty Popcorn * `Each of Harrower's four novels is concerned with entrapment of one sort or another, through family or youth or love. But The Watch Tower, her last novel, is almost like a distillation in its vision of the forces of good and evil. Something runs clear and strong through this wonderful, painful novel, the dark and the light. The victim and the survivor. Suffering and joy. The knowledge of both. Reality.' -- Joan London * Lit Hub * `Harrower's stark examination of two young women's vulnerability and helplessness in the face of a domineering man's savagery is painful to read. I have read it twice now and each time I have been moved by the clarity of Harrower's vision, the
terrible plausibility of her characters and the sheer power of the restrained emotion in her writing. It is a novel that deserves the closest and most attentive reading.' * Transnational Literature *
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About Elizabeth Harrower

Elizabeth Harrower was born in Sydney in 1928 but her family soon relocated to Newcastle where she lived until she was eleven. After leaving school she worked as a clerk and studied psychology.

In 1951 Harrower moved to London. She travelled extensively and she began to write fiction. Her first novel Down in the City was published in 1957, and was followed by The Long Prospect a year later. In 1959 she returned to Sydney where she began working for the ABC and as a book reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald. In 1960 she published The Catherine Wheel, the story of an Australian law student in London, her only novel not set in Sydney.

The Watch Tower appeared in 1966. No further novels were published though Harrower continued to write short fiction. Her work is austere, intelligent, ruthless in its perceptions about men and women. She was admired by many of her contemporaries, including Patrick White and Christina Stead, and is without doubt among the most important writers of the postwar period in Australia.

Elizabeth Harrower lives in Sydney.
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Rating details

1,029 ratings
3.58 out of 5 stars
5 20% (208)
4 36% (372)
3 29% (303)
2 10% (103)
1 4% (43)

Our customer reviews

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 more
by Paul Prociv
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