Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 290 pages; 2014.
Elizabeth Harrower is an Australian writer who has recently been rediscovered thanks largely to the efforts of Text Classics, which has republished all of her novels from the late 1950s and 60s, including one she withdrew from publication in 1971.
Last year I read her newly published short story collection, A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. I was enamoured enough to want to explore more of her work, so I went right back to the start and purchased her debut novel, Down in the City, which was first published in 1957. I liked it so much, I promptly ordered the rest of her back catalogue. I think I might have discovered a new favourite author.
Domestic life in post-war Sydney
Down in the City is one of those moody, atmospheric novels that brims with menace and has a frisson of danger running just underneath the surface.
It’s set in Sydney one hot summer and tells the story of an unlikely marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.
Esther Prescott is 33. She comes from a rich respectable family. She’s pretty, intelligent, calm and measured, but has led a fairly sheltered life, cosseted in a Rose Bay mansion with three brothers to protect her and a loving stepmother as her best friend.
One day Stan Peterson comes barging into her life. He’s flashy, loud, full of vim and vigour and quite unlike anyone she’s ever met before. Two weeks later she’s married him and moved into his King’s Cross flat.
Portrait of a marriage
The book charts their marriage as it morphs from an exciting new one to a troubled and obsessive one. It occasionally makes for uncomfortable reading, for it soon becomes clear that Esther’s domestic situation is an abusive one.
At first, keeping house is fun and she is eager to please her husband in whatever way she can. At all times she is kind and tolerant and thoughtful, prepared to befriend Stan’s neighbours (even though they are from a lower class than her) and to do whatever she can to make their living arrangements pleasant and comfortable.
But Stan is the type of man who is never pleased — and always selfish. He’s moody, evasive, cruel and sly. He is fond of the drink and likes to gamble. He’s never quite honest about how he makes a living and yet he’s always rolling in cash and has plenty to throw about. Women think he’s a boor and even his small circle of golfing buddies talk about him behind his back.
Stan was a man of grunts and nods and silences. If he could avoid an eye or a question, he did, his expression enigmatic. Nevertheless, after a few drinks at the club house he had given enough away — hints of grandiose schemes, not caring how his listeners interpreted them — to indicate that whatever his business might be, it was not legal.
It takes a little while for his true colours to come out, but when they do Esther is shocked and embarrassed and ashamed. She hides their domestic troubles from family and friends, and does a stirling job of keeping up appearances. But it’s heartbreaking to see her poise and grace and inner resolve begin to crumble.
A lightness of touch
Despite the rather heavy subject matter, Harrower writes such effortless, almost frothy, prose that the story moves along at a cracking pace without ever feeling oppressive. Yes, there’s a menacing undercurrent, a sense of creeping paranoia and a deep unease, but because the story is also told from Stan’s point of view, his actions are never that surprising. You know that he’s a manipulating, resentful, immature oaf; you just wish Esther knew it too.
It’s testament to Harrower’s skills that she can write such wonderful characters without turning them into caricatures or stereotypes. Esther’s naive and Stan’s a rogue, but their relationship is not entirely black and white: this is a delicately drawn and highly nuanced portrait of two people whose motivations, desires, hopes and dreams are simply not compatible. As the pair’s relationship changes over time and as Esther comes to realise her husband is not who — or what — she thinks he is, the reader comes to appreciate Harrower’s talents for emotionally acute observation.
Stan’s troubling behaviour, primarily his repeated, random and habitual use of intimidation to control Esther, is a textbook example of domestic abuse. Given it was written in the late 1950s, Down in the City seems decades ahead of its time. Back then, men went to work, women stayed at home, and what happened behind closed doors stayed there.
Its rather brilliant insights into psychological “warfare” on the home front makes this an important and compelling read. But its strong sense of time and place adds another level of interest, making it a truly rewarding read.
This is my second book for #AWW2017.