Gabrielle Carey chats to Chris Somerville about Moving Among Strangers
Gabrielle Carey talks to Chris Somerville about the reclusive novelist Randolph Stow, the secrets families keep and her new memoir, Moving Among Strangers.
‘One night I dreamt I saw Randolph Stow. He was sitting in a cave, wearing a long robe, his chest bare, ascetic, like one of the desert fathers. There was something magisterial about his aspect, and compelling, magnetic.
I woke with a shock. This is too much, I thought. This is taking literary obsession too far. Clearly, his grip on my mind was burrowing deep. Did I really want to be possessed in that way?
Trying to get to know a dead man you’ve never met and who was notoriously shy and secretive is not easy.’
Gabrielle Carey’s memoir begins with an anecdote of her niece at six years old, sending a letter to the reclusive Randolph Stow about his children’s book, Midnite: The Story of a Wild Colonial Boy, a correspondence that quickly establishes Stow’s wit and kindness. Carey’s gift for offering her reader such warm details underpins Moving Among Strangers and its dual narratives, which she describes as, ‘A book about two things: families and the way we tell stories about them – to each other and to ourselves. And it’s about the writer and poet Randolph Stow, who you might describe as an extremely gifted misfit.’
Stow’s obtuseness is also discussed in the critic Geordie Williamson’s book, The Burning Library. He writes: ‘So successful was Randolph Stow in erasing himself from this nation’s public memory that the Sydney Morning Herald took almost three weeks to print an obituary after his death in May of 2010.’
It’s an elucidatory quote and appears early on in Carey’s book, introducing us to the puzzle of Stow. ‘I feel Stow is different to many of the other “neglected” Australian authors,’ Carey says. ‘Such as Martin Boyd or, more recently, people like Thea Astley and Jessica Anderson – because he was not only a child prodigy but a very pronounced self-exile who had an intensely ambivalent relationship to the place of his birth.’
Indeed, Moving Among Strangers seems preoccupied with fleshing out our collective identity, if one exists (we sense that solving this might offer a significant piece of the Stow puzzle), and we get to hear of Stow’s dissatisfaction with being at home, filled with a people that he found too obsessed with sport, wealth and materialism. As Carey says, ‘The book is also about Australia, Australians and Australian identity – about who we are and what we stand for.’
Carey says of Stow’s exile: ‘He felt very much that he was on borrowed ground – in fact, he felt he was on illegitimate ground – and he decided pretty early on, in his late twenties I think, to return to the landscape of his forefathers in Sussex, where he felt much more at home.’ This was in 1960, after Stow already had three novels under his belt – one of them the Miles Franklin-winning, To the Islands. This tug of heritage struck a chord with Carey. ‘I really understood how he felt because when I first visited Ireland – completely by accident and with no idea at that time, that my last name was of Irish origin – I immediately felt at home, comfortable, as though I belonged.’
Throughout the book Carey keeps coming across these familiar connections. She writes, many times, about the feeling of meeting strangers and feeling a deep, familial bond with them.
Moving Among Strangers couples this investigation into the life of a reclusive writer with Carey’s own family history. Early in the book Carey’s mother, Joan, who is dying from cancer and who knew Stow from a shared childhood in Geraldton, Western Australia, asks if she can read out the Stow poem, ‘For One Dying’.
I handed her the Stow book, having marked what I remembered as her favourite poems. She immediately perused a page, sighed, and then looked up.
‘May I read this?’
We were astonished. Our mother could no longer read, or, even if she could, had lost the faculty for comprehension. For months, we had watched her pick up the Sydney Morning Herald from her doorstep each morning and spend the rest of the day perusing it in the lounge room, on the patio, in the park, often reading the same article over and over. It looked as though she was doing it out of habit and that in reality she couldn’t understand a word. Long before the stomach cancer, she had suffered a brain tumour that had resulted in symptoms of dementia.
‘Yes, please do,’ I said.
There is much happening here. Joan has been fasting for a week and her passing feels expected; it’s a grave and deeply upsetting scene. Yet it is a moment of tenderness: the simple, though here extraordinary, task of a woman reading aloud a poem that has been written by an old friend.
After this, Carey realises through letter writing with Stow that he knows much more than she ever thought to suspect of her immediate kin. ‘When you grow up in a family you spend many years with them and you think you know them but then, years later, you might find out things that really surprise, even shock you.’ Carey says. ‘In my case, I found out that my parents actually separated before I was born – in other words, I came very close to not existing … so, as a storyteller, Stow told me stories I would never, ever have been told by my parents. And I realised that these people I thought I knew were in some ways strangers to me.’
Carey’s subsequent investigation of her parents’ lives, and later of Stow, is brilliantly handled, trimmed with humour and clarity. Given the bruising subject matter it would be easy for the book to feel overwrought, though Carey avoids even a whiff of dramatic sincerity. When asked if this is something a writer should be wary of when engaging with memoir, the risk of romanticising the past, Carey says, ‘Actually, I think it’s something we should worry about in life.’
Once, in an interview, Stow talked about how important it is to ‘know’ an author; know of their life, in tandem with reading their work. Perhaps this leaves us in a predicament when reading Stow’s work, but Carey doesn’t see it the same way. She says, ‘Obviously you can enjoy an author’s work without knowing a thing about them – as we do with most books. Knowing something about the author does make you read their books in a different way – but not necessarily for better or for worse.’
With Moving Among Strangers, Carey has taken on the task of illuminating the life of a perplexing man along with sharing her family history, these two stories, each generous and affecting, working together to form an immersive, engaging read.
Chris Somerville is a writer who currently lives in Melbourne. His first book, We Are Not The Same Anymore, was published earlier this year.