‘The Catherine Wheel’ by Elizabeth Harrower

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 352 pages; 2014.

First published in 1960, The Catherine Wheel features all of Elizabeth Harrower’s literary trademarks: a young woman, a claustrophobic relationship, a brooding atmosphere and brilliant psychological insights.

Set in London during the 1950s, it’s a grim portrait of both the city and the troubled life of a 25-year-old Australian woman who arrives from Sydney to begin a law course by correspondence.

Clemency James moves into a boarding house and has a small circle of friends who keep her entertained. But when she meets Christian, a good-looking man with a much older wife, her quiet, stable and studious existence gets thrown into disarray.

Kind-hearted and somewhat passive, Clem cannot resist Christian’s charms even though she knows he’s trouble, for Christian, an out-of-work actor, has a gambling and alcohol problem. He’s vain, petty and narcissistic.

When Clem agrees to give him French lessons of an evening to sustain her meagre allowance she feeds into Christian’s fantasy of moving abroad and becoming successful. He wants Clem to come with him, and while she realises it’s an unlikely prospect — he’s married after all — she somehow succumbs to his ways and finds herself caught up in a claustrophobic relationship from which she cannot extricate herself.

Her friends, fearful for her welfare, find that whatever they say, Clem takes against them: she truly believes that for all her lover’s faults she’s the one who will be able to change him.

Restrained psychological drama

I’ve read several of Harrower’s books now and like her two earlier novels — Down in the City and The Long Prospect — this one is a slow burner. The author takes her time to not only build up a deft portrait of her characters, she painstakingly sets the scene so that her restrained psychological drama, which plays out in a domestic setting, feels authentic and immersive.

By the time the reader realises that Clem has got in over her head, it’s too late: she’s become blinded by Christian’s woeful behaviour and now there doesn’t seem to be any turning back because even if she does realise what’s really going on, she will have to deal with the slow-burning shame of it.

I admit that this book did try my patience at times, perhaps because it’s slightly too long for a character-driven story, but on the whole I found it a fascinating look at the intricate emotional webs that flawed humans are capable of weaving. It also proves an insightful look at unstable personalities, alcoholism and the far-reaching effects of psychological abuse.

For another take on this novel, please see Guy’s review.

This is my 17th book for #AWW2018 and 17th book for #20booksofsummer (apologies, I’m still playing catch-up with reviews; I’ve got two more to go after this one). I bought it a couple of years ago as part of a set of Harrower novels published by Text Classics. She’s promptly become one of my favourite authors and I look forward to reading the remaining two novels I have in my TBR some time soon.

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12 thoughts on “‘The Catherine Wheel’ by Elizabeth Harrower

    • Good question… I’m not sure she does… I think the title probably refers to idea of the Catherine Wheel as an implement of torture rather than the idea of the Catherine Wheel as a firework. The way that Christian gets under Clem’s skin is certainly torturous, because she’s both repulsed and attracted by him and can’t seem to get rid of him on the basis she’s just too nice and too passive.

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    • Clem is slightly frustrating… she’s passive and kind and seems to let people trample all over her… Do give Harrower a try though, if you can. I certainly recommend her first book, Down in the City, though she’s probably best know for The Watchtower, which I’m yet to read.

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