CLAIRE CORBETT Watch Over Me. Reviewed by Sally Nimon
This is a powerful portrayal of what can happen in war and in the skilful hands of Claire Corbett the message is clear: there but for the grace of God …
The world is at war. It always has been. Our sense of security is an illusion. At any moment, on any day, in any year, somebody somewhere is suffering at the hands of someone else. This is the fundamental truth at the heart of Watch Over Me.
The city of Port Angelsund, located somewhere in the planet’s icy north, has been overtaken. Why? Because it is unfortunate enough to preside over a vast reservoir of the ‘largest remaining energy reserves on earth’. An invading force known only as Garrison has swept in on a tide of military might to secure it for themselves. An equally powerful force, known as Coalition, is resisting. And, caught between these two and obstacles to both, are Port Angelsund’s citizens.
This is not a good situation to be in. The streets are ravaged by gunfire and bombs. Food and resources are scarce. Shelter is hard to find and subject to accidental destruction. Orphaned children live homeless and destitute in an Arctic winter. Single mothers eke a living on the streets after being evicted with babies at their breasts. There is the constant threat of casual violence at the hands of bored and frustrated soldiers posted far from home. Our first introduction to both the world of Watch Over Me and its heroine occurs as 19-year-old Sylvie is ‘kneeling blindfold on cold broken bricks at the Limestone checkpoint’ while a young soldier tortures her because he has nothing better to do.
The point is starkly made: through no fault of its own, this population is subject to every indignity, oppressed to within an inch of its life, its members equally likely to die or be maimed at the hands of the oppressing Garrison force or the friendly fire of the Coalition. And the worst part is that this scenario isn’t even unfamiliar, but echoes every wartime narrative you’ve ever read, every story leaked from Sarajevo or Syria, every report you’ve watched on the night-time news. Port Angelsund was once a modern, advanced civilisation. It had an educated citizenry, a university, cafés and restaurants. Now it doesn’t. It is a powerful portrayal, and in Corbett’s skilful hands the message is clear: there but for the grace of God … Sylvie may be living at the other end of the earth to those of us safely reading in Australia but we must not be fooled. This is a fate that could befall any one of us, at any time, simply for the crime of being in a place at the moment it becomes of value to someone else.
And into this world comes the story of Sylvie and Garrison Lieutenant, Will Maur.
The conceit is clear: Corbett is using the inevitability of what happens to women in occupied cities as a broader metaphor for the fate of Port Angelsund itself. And as a metaphor it serves her well. We witness through Sylvie’s own eyes how this tall, dark invader captures her body, subdues her to his will and makes her his own, even as his forces are doing the same to her city. Little time is wasted on explanation because little explanation is required; instead, we witness events firsthand as Maur spies Sylvie one night in a café and fate plays out to its inevitable conclusion. In the words of that James Blunt song, ‘I saw the end before we’d begun/I saw you were blinded and I knew I had won’.
What was more curious to me was the choice Corbett makes to portray this relationship as a love story, rather than through the more complex context of attraction, repulsion, coercion and survival which is playing out all around it in in the city.
Through the use of first-person narrative, the reader is left with little doubt as to Sylvie’s feelings for Maur. From the very beginning her reaction is strong and unambiguous, clinging to him like the one shining spark in a world of disintegration and darkness. In the context of the opening chapter this makes complete sense: she is kneeling, blindfolded, and about to be tortured by a bored soldier when Maur’s voice calls him away. It is natural and understandable that relief could combine with intense gratitude under these kinds of circumstances to result in something that could be confused with love.
The problem is, as it turns out, the Lieutenant is not a nice man. Not a nice man at all.
We learn early on that he is a member of the Black Mambas, a surgically/genetically enhanced predator force designed to blend in with target populations in order to better move among them, gathering the intelligence needed to ensure their downfall.
‘These are hunter-killers,’ Sylvie’s friend Max warns her the first time he sees them. ‘Their motto is Mors Ex Tenebris: Death from Darkness.’
Nor does Maur attempt to hide his nature from her. Instead of the more conventional choice of a hallmark card or a bunch of roses, his first gift is a photograph of himself kneeling in the mud, Rambo style, drinking the blood of a recently slaughtered cobra. His physical interactions with her bring torment as much as pleasure. The first time he takes her hand beneath a table in the café:
It was comforting, warm, but also a vice, locking my entire body into place at that one point … I had to just sit and wait, as long as it pleased [him] to hold me.
When he touches her hair:
You twisted the lock around your fingers, using it to tug my head back, making me arch my spine … The pressure made me squeak.
Sylvie is even warned by Elsa, an older (and presumably much wiser) woman:
[you] … must please him … I’ve seen men like him. They get a look about them. He’s done more than just sit and watch a screen.’
Yet Sylvie’s devotion never wavers. Though she hates Garrison and what they are doing to her city, to her friends, to her brothers and everything around her, her love for Maur remains. She helps him, supports him, even moves in with him to service his every need while he goes out at night to command his forces to rape her city. While this works in the beginning, it starts to stretch credulity as the events of the novel unfold, and, by the time of Maur’s final act, produces a level of forgiveness in her that I found, frankly, unlikely if not unbelievable.
However, this is not to say that Watch Over Me is not a well written and powerful read. In fact, it is in places so well rendered that it verges on uncomfortable. The world of Sylvie and Port Anglesund may well exist only as printed words on a page, but this does not mean the events are not real. There are Sylvies and Port Angelsunds suffering every day, every moment, somewhere around the world. It is a strong reminder not to take your life for granted, because no one knows what tomorrow may bring. Which, in the context of current world events, is not bad advice.
Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre.
Claire Corbett Watch Over Me Allen & Unwin 2017 PB 471 pp $29.99
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