Love in the cold light of military occupation
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