Down in the City by Elizabeth Harrower
Far from the Newcastle shores of her youth, in 1950s London, Elizabeth Harrower penned her first novel, Down in the City. Staged in an ordinary apartment block in Sydney’s Kings Cross, the lives of two young couples and a lonely teenage girl meet in the stairway and outside doors left ajar.
Esther is 33 and has grown into womanhood without guidance. Her knowledge of men and of the world belongs to imagination. Even vulnerability evades her and instead, she is beset with an irritating air of uncertainty. Her husband Stan is a socially repellent man, as unkind as he is uncouth. The pair married in haste, hoping somehow that their union might correct their respective flaws. Instead it offers only battle and misery. Their neighbours Laura and Bill Maitland are, on the surface, perfect in every manner, but perhaps their smiles conceal as much as they convey. Then there’s Rachel, the awkward adolescent who, for all her quiet obedience, dares to date an Italian migrant.
Exploring the depths of the city’s power relations through emotional and class structures, this novel is far more biting than its melodramatic premise might suggest. Not yet free from the oppressive social decorum introduced during colonisation, and yet attempting to make sense of those partially toppled structures in the wake of a post-war economy, Harrower’s writing aches in sync with her characters. Clearly informed by the author’s own diaspora experience, the novel feels equally as interested in Englishness as it is in Australianness.
Nevertheless, this is certainly a triumph from Text’s project to recover forgotten Australian literature. Doused in melancholy and written from an accessible yet unnerving third-person perspective, Harrower’s debut is a light read with weighty resonance.
Tara Judah works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.