Stupendously creepy, a book that got under my skin and drove me to distraction, having to violently toss it away whenever my expectations of freedom were dashed again and again. Harrower is masterful at building a crescendo, the discomfort grows, you as a reader want the girls to discover that they simply can walk out the door and start a new life away from their torturer.
The story bristles with unease from the beginning, when their mother comes to claim them from boarding school in rural Australia after their father’s death. This mother lies in bed all day and forces her children to tend to her, to find work to support her in Sydney, and eventually abandons them and heads to England. The oldest daughter, Laura, marries her boss at the box factory, thinking she’s found protection and security, but ending up with a mouthful of sand and dreams of oasis. Felix Shaw, the evildoer of the story, does everything he can to make her feel on tenterhooks, uncomfortable, including selling the house she loves as punishment for going out for a walk. Part of the rationale for marrying Shaw was to protect her younger sister, Clare, to allow Clare to finish school. Felix goes back on his promise, enlists her in business classes to learn shorthand instead.
His normally so evasive eyes were now obscenely eager to make contact with other eyes, stalked them, sought them out with a strange and gloating pleasure, somehow smeared them with the filth of his own mind, gloating into them with a threatening and vile deliberation. He dared them to look away. He dared them to speak. Craven, in total submission, ruined, he wanted them to be.
When she finally revots, mid-story (don’t get your hopes up, it doesn’t last):
Laura had felt her nerves straining, all but spent, for that instant when not Felix exactly but things, the omnipresent, terrible, invisible examiner, would call, ‘Enough!’
She stared at the table, dully understanding that that absolutely vital relief was as far away as it had ever been. Instead there were to be new burdens, new strivings, new sets of books, new unreasonable reasons for silence and labour and putting her down with his eyes with that amazing look of arrogance.
‘No!’ she said aloud. ‘No!’ she said to the waiting table. She felt a sudden tearing sensation as if half the contents of her head had been violently catapulted off from her. Like someone pushing through dense brush, she went to her bedroom, tugged on a coat and grabbed a handbag. No one was about. She went swiftly outside, and up the path to the street.
Clare’s heightened sensitivity:
What was she looking for? What did she miss? And why did the world and the weirdness and significance of captives, cats, faces and buildings strike her with fresh surprise daily, as if she had arrived from another time and place, expecting the earth to be much different?
We could do anything, and we do this, what we do do. How lacking – How lacking in –
But the world, poor world, was as over-burdened with cleverness as with stupidity, and in a sense (lacking this) did they not amount to the very same thing? Oh he’s clever, Clare thought, but who’s good? Who’s good? Who’s good?
And it seemed that in finding the words for this question she had found them for all longing, and every question. For this meant everything.
I want to be in the presence of someone good.