Author Elizabeth Harrower

''It does seem like another person'' ... Elizabeth Harrower. Photo: Jon Reid

On a wall in Elizabeth Harrower's apartment is a small drawing of a woman drowning. The woman is seen from behind, and she holds her arms in the air as if calling for help. From the corner of the drawing, comes what seems to be a lifeline, but there's a sting - at the end of the line is a large fish hook.

The writer Patrick White gave Harrower the drawing as a gift. She says they just looked at each other; there was no need for words. ''Isn't it cruel? Isn't it horrible?'' she says. She doesn't believe she needed rescuing, then or now.

Harrower is 84, tall and straight-backed. Her fourth and last novel, The Watch Tower, was published in 1966. This month it was republished as a Text Publishing Classic, one of 30 remarkable, and mostly out of print, Australian books. She is immensely pleased, having thought that nobody would talk about Elizabeth Harrower, novelist, again until she was dead.

The curious thing about Harrower is that for five years, ''the whole goal'' of her existence was to write this intense, very Australian psychological thriller. She worked at an office job during the day, and wrote from 7pm to 10pm and all weekend long - ''I didn't care how long it took, I just thought, I have to get it right.'' Writing was a ''reckless, foolish thing to do'' in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was all she wanted to do. When it was published, The Sydney Morning Herald described it as ''a dense, profoundly moral novel of our time''. She would never publish a book again.

Harrower reads voraciously, follows politics, goes to films, loves music, lunches with friends, learns Italian, but few people even know she was, or is, one of the country's finest writers.

In that other life, Harrower was close to White, in 1973 Australia's first winner of the Nobel prize for literature. She was friends with celebrated writers Christina Stead and Kylie Tennant and the writer and political adviser Richard Hall. She was a close friend, too, of the painter Sidney Nolan and his wife, Cynthia. Her friends urged her to write, and were cross when she did not.

''Patrick was always very angry with me for not writing, enraged. He was horrible. Only people who really care about you care about whether you are doing that or not.'' She brings out a book White inscribed for her in 1986. ''To Elizabeth, luncher and diner extraordinaire. Sad you don't also WRITE.''

Over three hours, first at her apartment overlooking Sydney Harbour, then at lunch, Harrower tries to explain what happened. She will talk about everything but she is reluctant to analyse her books and there are long pauses when she grapples with the question of why she stopped writing.

It's not as though she ran out of things to say - ''there were probably too many things to say''. It's not as though her work was poorly received - her second novel, The Long Prospect, was described as ranking ''second only to Voss as a postwar work of Australian literature''. It's not as though she was busy raising children - she never married and is childless. She doesn't dismiss the question as irrelevant, either. ''It's a very good question,'' she says.

''I feel almost guilty, it's something that had happened long ago … that had this impact … but it does seem like another person … I'm very glad I did [write the books]. It's really the main thing that justifies my existence.

''My friends thought I let other people waste my life. They would try to pressure me to keep writing, which should have been encouraging but I wasn't easy to save.''

Just before The Watch Tower was published, Harrower, then 38, described it to an interviewer as emotionally ''excruciating'', and in 2012, it still is. The book is set in 1940s Sydney and sisters Laura and Clare are deserted by their indifferent mother, who flees to England as soon as Laura is married off to a middle-aged small businessman, Felix Shaw. Shaw is mean-spirited, unhappy and one of the most superbly drawn evil characters in Australian literature.

In a lovely house in a leafy Sydney suburb, Shaw tyrannises the women with cruelty, violence, manipulation, and his economic power over them. The once talented and hopeful Laura is so desperate to please she gradually loses any sense of self beyond trying, futilely, to anticipate Felix's whims. At dinner, Felix ''chewed with his mouth open, sucked at his food, mused over his book''. Laura can ''barely swallow for fear of being overheard''. In the end, the story is about younger sister Clare, who finds a path to freedom.

There are feminist threads throughout. Felix loathes women, and there are homosexual undertones in his eagerness to impress men, but Harrower finds too much analysis of her books strange. Recently, she discovered dusty academic articles about her work, all of which explore similar themes of entrapment amid a searing indictment of Australian suburban culture. ''It was interesting and not interesting [to read them], a bit like pulling wings off a butterfly. A book just sits there; it waits for you to make what you want of it … as a writer you just notice everything, you're too noticing in a way and it's instinctive.''

She doesn't identify as a feminist: ''It doesn't suit me, this feeling of grievance. [Some feminists] have said, 'Why didn't the sisters leave, didn't get up and have a career?' It's irritating … you really have to put yourself in the time, not judge it from several decades on when you've been given untold opportunities. It was a different world altogether.''

The world into which Harrower was born in 1928 was ''confused''. An only child, her parents separated when she was small, and she lived in Newcastle until she was 12, sometimes with her mother, sometimes her grandmother. She remembers writing - long letters to school friends, pages and pages of diaries. During the war, she once saw a train full of soldiers in the country, throwing scraps of paper with their addresses written on them. She wrote long letters to these unknown soldiers. At 23, hopeful and naive, she left Australia for the first time, to visit family in Scotland and London. She thought she'd never come back.

''Leaving Australia then, it really was another planet, it was like visiting the moon to go away … It was unimaginably strange to leave this chunk of land that we were living on.''

At 25, she wrote her first novel, Down in the City, and in 1959, missing Australia and her mother in particular, she returned home.

When she thinks about The Watch Tower and why it was her last published novel - she did write another but didn't think it good enough to publish - Harrower speaks first of her mother Margaret's sudden death from a stroke in 1970.

''It took me a long time to recover … It was horrific, I thought nothing would be so terrible again. I think you only get shocked like that once … You realise something then and you don't really recover, you just change.''

There was guilt, too, a sense that she had been so preoccupied with friends and life that she hadn't given her mother the attention she bestowed on others. It took her years to get over it, and when Cynthia Nolan asked her to visit in London in the early '70s, she went.

Harrower loved Cynthia Nolan, who would take her own life in 1976 - ''she was a fragile soul, a rare soul''. Nolan urged her to write, even asking Harrower to write her biography. But something prevented her, something Harrower won't quite reveal. ''Writing has to matter more than anything else, and other people don't like being abandoned. Other people have an interest in your not writing. I was self-destructive, no question.

''It's as if you put it in a cellar and locked the door. I don't know anybody who knows I'm a writer. The people who did understand are dead. Patrick. Cynthia. Richard.''

Not that Harrower dwells on all of this too much. Her mother left her some money and, living frugally, she hasn't needed to work. She has been, and still is, absorbed in life, in people, closely observing everything and everyone. She took Italian classes for years, and Buddhist classes, too. For years, she read ''everything'' in the Sydney library, and has put up with the ailments of age - fighting off colon cancer in the late 1980s. And she spends a great deal of time with her second cousin, 96-year-old Margaret Dick, who does indeed know Elizabeth Harrower is a writer.

She has always been political. She joined the ALP in Australia in 1973 ''out of happiness'' that Gough Whitlam had been elected. She was loyal to Labor, until 2011, when she didn't renew her membership because, ''I couldn't get over Kevin [Rudd] being axed.''

Now Harrower is tired of ''this miserableness about getting old'' and she has a theory.

''We've arrived here, on a great holiday, there are beautiful places and we have a long, complicated holiday. And like any holiday, it comes to an end. You know you'll have to go home.''

And writing? She was recently asked to think about sending some stories and she declined. ''[I] realised I just can't be bothered any more.''

More favourite books at smh.com.au/entertainment/books