Love in the cold light of mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Doug Wallen

Open­ing with armed guards en­forc­ing dra­co­nian check­points and per­mits, Claire Cor­bett’s sec­ond novel ini­tially seems to de­pict a dystopian near-fu­ture. But Watch Over Me is in fact set in the present. The fic­tional city of Port An­gel­sund has been oc­cu­pied by a for­eign army, known as Gar­ri­son, be­cause of its lo­ca­tion near a valu­able re­serve of nat­u­ral en­ergy at the Scan­di­na­vian gate­way to the Arc­tic Cir­cle.

Three years into the oc­cu­pa­tion, Port na­tive Sylvie — in her early 20s, and the baker in her fam­ily’s small cafe since age 10 — be­comes smitten with a Gar­ri­son lieu­tenant, Will, who frees her from some overzeal­ous young sol­diers. They em­bark on a tur­bu­lent af­fair that mir­rors the bat­tle rag­ing over the city, with out­side Coali­tion forces promis­ing res­cue while rebels co­a­lesce within.

Sylvie’s ab­sent brother is im­mersed in that rebel group — dubbed Ul­tras — and this puts her in an even more pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion with her con­tentious lover. Piv­ot­ing be­tween hard­ened dis­ci­pline and in­tense sex­ual pas­sion, Will is a ris­ing of­fi­cer in an elite branch of spe­cial forces called the Black Mam­bos. He’s given to clipped, boast­ful procla­ma­tions: “I am not a lord of war. Ex­cept when I am.”

De­spite those broader turns, the novel is grounded in the real world, right down to sub­tle touches such as Port na­tives los­ing them­selves in Gar­ri­son-ap­proved video games. They dab­ble in aug­mented re­al­ity a la Poke­mon Go and play the real-life game This War of Mine, in­spired by the Siege of Sara­jevo.

One of the reg­u­lars in Sylvie’s cafe is a cit­i­zen jour­nal­ist who ar­gues with com­menters on his blog — so far, so true to life — while sol­diers toss out acronyms that mir­ror SMS-speak. And, of course, re­mote war­fare in­volv­ing in­sid­i­ous sur­veil­lance and drone strikes is es­sen­tial. The most timely facet of all that un­der­ly­ing so­cial com­men­tary is the slick PR spin that ac­com­pa­nies mod­ern war­fare: “The of­fi­cial story is that you never in­vaded, you were in­vited to oc­cupy our coun­try’s north­ern zone for our own pro­tec­tion,” Sylvie writes to Will. Later, Gar­ri­son even re­brands the oc­cu­pa­tion as a “re­struc­ture”, as scenes of war are glam­or­ised via In­sta­gramesque photo fil­ters.

Syd­ney-based Cor­bett has writ­ten about de­fence and strat­egy for sev­eral pub­li­ca­tions, and Watch Over Me is deeply in­formed by her re- search into his­tor­i­cal in­va­sions from Sara­jevo to Troy.

She is fas­ci­nated by the sub­ju­ga­tion of a coun­try and es­pe­cially its women, who are usu­ally seen as trea­sonous if they have an af­fair with an oc­cu­py­ing of­fi­cer — while the men are merely do­ing what’s nat­u­ral.

“Noth­ing else about me will ever mat­ter,” muses Sylvie. “I may even die for it: to the world I will al­ways be that girl.”

Cor­bett is drawn to this fraught in­ter­sec­tion of war­fare, loy­alty and per­sonal free­dom, with Sylvie echo­ing her jour­nal­ist friend’s con­clu­sion that “women have the hu­man rights men de­cide they can have”. The book is most com­pelling when in that mode, in­ves­ti­gat­ing the fate of fem­i­nism when a coun­try (and cul­ture) is un­der siege. Cor­bett also taps ten­sions be­tween tech­nol­ogy, refugees and na­tion­al­ism that feel es­pe­cially rel­e­vant in the era of Don­ald Trump.

But much of that is only back­ground to Sylvie and Will’s all-con­sum­ing af­fair, which drags the book down a bit. Both char­ac­ters be­come evan­gel­i­cal about sex, with Will de­liv­er­ing leaden lines such as: “I am go­ing to nail you. So hard.” Giv­ing Sylvie a pearl choker and new phone to track (and thus “pro­tect”) her, Will de­mands her obe­di­ence and even hits her at one point. None of that di­min­ishes her de­vo­tion to him, though she lies to him just as of­ten as she does to her fam­ily.

As Cor­bett lingers over Sylvie’s sex­ual awak­en­ing and con­flicted predica­ment, Sylvie’s mo­tives fi­nally crys­tallise into some­thing sub­stan­tial when she says she “wanted to do the most for­bid­den thing in the world”. She means yield­ing her body for love rather than for “money, pro­tec­tion, food”: “To wor­ship you, I lay my­self open to you, I am con­quered, I sur­ren­der.” Later she finds new-found clar­ity, but by this time the “storm” promised by the Coali­tion and the Ul­tras is well on its way.

Cor­bett’s well-re­searched fas­ci­na­tion with war­time psy­chol­ogy makes for an awk­ward fit with her sus­tained pur­suit of steamy ro­mance, even though the el­e­ments are meant to go hand in hand here. Told en­tirely in Sylvie’s voice, the book also leaves most of the other char­ac­ters thinly drawn, es­pe­cially when it comes to her stu­dent-turned-rev­o­lu­tion­ary brother.

The cover of Watch Over Me an­nounces the book’s com­pet­ing themes with its busy tagline: “A con­tem­po­rary thriller of re­bel­lion and sur­ren­der and love and war.” But Cor­bett’s de­tailed, prob­ing look at oc­cu­pa­tion and op­pres­sion feels at odds with a love story that doesn’t quite ring true. is an arts jour­nal­ist.

Claire Cor­bett is an ex­pert in de­fence and strat­egy

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