Originally published in 1966 in Australia, Harrower’s (The Catherine Wheel, 1960, etc.) narrative penetrates the intimate lives of an abuser and his enablers in 1940s Australia.
Laura and Clare are emotionally unprepared to fend for themselves, and their father’s sudden death and self-indulgent mother’s abandonment mark the beginning of a lifetime of permitting others to define their lives. Yanked from boarding school, where Laura had secret aspirations of becoming a physician like her father or a professional singer, Laura’s mother enrolls her in business school in Sydney. She and Clare spend hours before and after classes catering to their mother and accepting their lot as their mother’s keepers. When Laura graduates at the top of her class, her mother insists she find work near their home, so Laura becomes a typist in a box factory. But soon after, her mother decides to return to England and leave the girls in Australia. That’s when 44-year-old factory owner Felix Shaw steps in and offers to marry Laura and care for Clare. Life doesn’t drastically change for the sisters: They go from a life of servitude in their mother’s home to a life of servitude and abuse in Felix’s new mansion. Felix desperately wants to be seen as a mover and a shaker and, just as he’s ensnared Laura and Clare, he allows shady business associates to take advantage of him. Felix drinks, and the more he drinks, the more abusive he becomes. While Laura and Clare slowly suffocate and fade into invisibility, each believes in the unimportance of her existence. In fact, Clare’s astounded to discover that a co-worker actually has thought about her when she wasn’t around. Although the introduction of a new character brings new hope to Clare, reading Harrower’s psychological narrative can be as emotionally draining as the lives she describes. Her haunting and delicate writing provides stark contrast to the reality of her characters’ situations.
Readers who missed this book the first time around will want to read the reprint.