Book review: Watch Over Me, by Claire Corbett

24 08 2017

Claire Corbett is an Australian speculative fiction writer, essayist, and academic with a background as a policy adviser in the spheres of health and the environment. She has written two novels and several short stories, and her work has appeared two years running in Best Australian Stories and has been shortlisted for various awards. I’ve previously reviewed her debut novel, When We Have Wings, here.

WatchOverMe

Watch Over Me is Corbett’s second novel. It’s set in what purports to be the present day, on what claims to be Earth, but the particularities of its geographical setting (the conquered city of Port Angelsund, located somewhere above the Arctic Circle) and its geopolitical backstory (a slow-unfolding and wide-ranging conflict between the forces of Garrison—Port Angelsund’s occupying force—and the distant, powerful, callously indifferent Coalition) do not properly mesh with our own circumstances.

The novel’s protagonist, Sylvie Falk, is a teenager who helps out with the business her mother runs, the Half Moon Café. We’re introduced immediately to the near-constant harassment and occasionally deadly danger Sylvie faces as a citizen of Port: she’s detained by ‘boy soldiers’ on the way through one of Garrison’s checkpoints with her four-year-old brother Toby, and only avoids a bullet to the back of the head through the intervention of a young officer in Garrison’s special forces, the Black Mambas, who witnesses her treatment and orders her release. The incident’s described in vivid, intimate detail, heightened by two complicating factors: first, Sylvie is painfully aware, all through the almost-fatal ordeal, of the hand-scrawled note in her possession from her older brother Jory (a fugitive freedom fighter training to play his part in the insurrection against Garrison’s oppression), who wishes to meet her for some undisclosed purpose in the coming days; and two, she becomes obsessed with her fleeting but probably life-saving encounter with the Black Mambas lieutenant. A few days later, a couple of Black Mambas visit the Half Moon, demanding priority treatment (as is their asserted right as elite members of the occupying force), and Sylvie’s stunned to realise that one of the officers is ‘her’ lieutenant who, though he appears not to recognise her, does seem to be taken by her … and with that, Sylvie is pretty much assured of the precarious role of the double agent.

The relationship that sparks between Sylvie and Lieutenant Will Maur is chillingly asymmetrical: he’s trained (and steeped) in power and its application, and she’s almost powerless to resist. At the outset, she has no interest in resisting: this is, after all, the man who saved her life. But there remains Sylvie’s obligation towards her brother Jory, a loyalty totally at odds with her burgeoning dalliance with (and subsequent effective capture by) the Black Mambas lieutenant. It’s clear that something in this setup is doomed to break. The voice which Corbett has selected—first-person narration by Sylvie, who so frequently refers to ‘her’ lieutenant in the second person that the tale is in effect a paean to a deeply troubling, deeply-felt relationship—adds significantly to the narrative’s innate tension. It’s clear, among other things, that Maur does feel very strongly for Sylvie; and yet, for all his proclamations of guardianship over her, he cannot protect her from all of the atrocities of which his colleagues and countrymen are capable. Those who require trigger warnings for descriptions of sexual assault should be prewarned that Corbett does not flinch from detailing such actions.

The book’s depiction of occupation is deep and multifaceted: the fierce arguments between Port’s subjugated citizens over the options of resistance, submission, or collaboration (Port has its own vigilantes, the Ultras, who mete out summary justice on those they consider to have assisted Garrison in some way, or perhaps just haven’t resisted with sufficient fervour); the senseless yet carefully-calibrated atrocities inflicted seemingly at random, by Garrison’s boy soldiers, on civilians of every age; the ‘war banter’ between Maur and his fellow officers, full of opaque metaphors, occupational in-jokes, and shorthand references to past sorties; the day-to-day focus of those who can’t know, when they arise in the morning, if they will still be more-or-less safe that evening. There’s a strong sense of invasion as marketing, of harassment as advertising: Garrison’s boy soldiers humiliate, assault, kill those who cannot fight back, in part because they can, in part because it’s what’s expected of them. Anything less would indicate a failure, on their part, to meet military KPIs. This focus obviously makes for strange bedfellows with the book’s other primary concern of love and abandonment; and yet it’s this juxtaposition, more than anything else, which makes the story work.

As a Tove Jansson tragic, I cannot consider my review complete without mentioning that Watch Over Me includes, as one of its few direct references to recognisable human ‘landmarks’ (the others are Paris; Kosovo; and a sequence of music tracks, ranging from folk to electronic to heavy metal, provided as a playlist at the book’s rear and occasionally referenced within the text) a mention of Jansson’s Moomin books, of which Sylvie gives a box set to Toby on his fifth birthday. I should also say that, just as the setting isn’t quite recognisable from contemporary cartography, neither does it appear to be quite present-day. There are aspects to the military technology (moth drones, spy-dust, and robot ‘doggies’) which seem to be near-future: in this sense, the story qualifies as science fiction, though its sensibilities are not as deeply science-fictional as, for example, the similarly impassioned and conflict-steeped Earth Made of Glass by John Barnes, nor the most inventively speculative of Iain Banks’s ‘literary’ novels, Transition. There is, though, a strong echo of Banks’s phrasing, pacing, and character development in Corbett’s writing here, as well as a pleasing solidity and patience. (It’s a very different book to her earlier novel, When We Have Wings, but that seems to be, I gather, a characteristic of her work: she has a preference for standalones.)

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31 10 2017
Book Review – Simon Petrie – Claire Corbett

[…] ‘The voice which Corbett has selected—first-person narration by Sylvie, who so frequently refers to ‘her’ lieutenant in the second person that the tale is in effect a paean to a deeply troubling, deeply-felt relationship—adds significantly to the narrative’s innate tension….The book’s depiction of occupation is deep and multifaceted: the fierce arguments between Port’s subjugated citizens over the options of resistance, submission, or collaboration … the senseless yet carefully-calibrated atrocities inflicted seemingly at random, … the ‘war banter’ between Maur and his fellow officers, full of opaque metaphors, occupational in-jokes, and shorthand references to past sorties; the day-to-day focus of those who can’t know, when they arise in the morning, if they will still be more-or-less safe that evening. There’s a strong sense of invasion as marketing, of harassment as advertising: Garrison’s boy soldiers humiliate, assault, kill those who cannot fight back, in part because they can, in part because it’s what’s expected of them. Anything less would indicate a failure, on their part, to meet military KPIs. This focus obviously makes for strange bedfellows with the book’s other primary concern of love and abandonment; and yet it’s this juxtaposition, more than anything else, which makes the story work.’ […]

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