Two-time Miles Franklin winner Michelle de Kretser, who became a friend of Harrower, said her fiction displayed great psychological acuity.
‘‘She was so good on the way power works, and is used and abused in intimate relationships. Her novels were permeated with what you might call ‘domestic claustrophobia’. Houses, apartments, rooms become terrifying spaces. That was her material. She had a sort of narrow trench and she went all the way down and mined it deeply. And the writing … the sentences are fabulous, the prose is great: there is clarity, immediacy, integrity; it is very vivid prose.’’
And novelist Joan London said she first read The Watch Tower when she was 18. ‘‘It gripped me like a nightmare. While never having suffered the excruciating manipulation of the novel’s villain, Felix Shaw, there was something terribly familiar about the quick, sly barbs that gathered force against two young, well-meaning sisters who were in his employ. We have the words for it now: mental cruelty, and the legal means to combat it.’’
In a profile in The New Yorker, James Wood described Harrower’s work as ‘‘witty, desolate, truth-seeking, and complexly polished’’.
Harrower was born in Sydney in 1928 and spent her early years in Newcastle. She published her first novel, Down in the City, in 1957, but later described it as ‘‘practice’’ for the second, The Long Prospect, which appeared two years later. Both were written during her eight-year spell in England. The Catherine Wheel, which she set in London, came out in 1960, by which time she had returned to Australia, and The Watch Tower was published in 1966. After her experience with In Certain Circles, she wrote only a few short stories that were later collected in A Few Days in the Country.
Brigitta Olubas, who co-edited Elizabeth Harrower: Critical Essays, said she was one of the great novelists of Sydney.
‘‘She brought the post-war city unforgettably into our contemporary view, its diverse and complex lives playing out against the ‘everlasting harbour’, Pacific ocean stretching out to ‘hazy infinity’, the scent of the bush all around, but also the tawdry and blighted crush of the city streets and, perhaps most distinctively, its suburbs. As readers returned to Harrower’s work with … In Certain Circles, there was a further shock of recognition of the Sydney of renovation and demolition, observed with a striking prescience.’’
Harrower was a longtime friend of Patrick White and in 1996 won the award he established for under-recognised writers.
In 2014, she told Susan Wyndham, a former literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘‘Patrick was very mean to me when I stopped writing,’’ she says. ‘‘We had a really big relationship, a real friendship. He tried to look after me in his own mysterious way; this involved him shouting at me, and I would shout back. He bullied me, but you can’t bully people into writing if they’re not going to do it.’’