Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family

Gabrielle Carey

Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family
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Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family

Gabrielle Carey

Two literary lives defined by storytelling and secrets. As her mother Joan lies dying, Gabrielle Carey writes a letter to Joan’s childhood friend, the reclusive novelist Randolph Stow. This letter sets in motion a literary pilgrimage that reveals long-buried family secrets. Like her mother, Stow had grown up in Western Australia. After early literary success and a Miles Franklin Award win in 1958 for his novel To the Islands, he left for England and a life of self-imposed exile.

Living most of her life on the east coast, Gabrielle was also estranged from her family’s west Australian roots, but never questioned why. A devoted fan of Stow’s writing, she becomes fascinated by his connection with her extended family, but before she can meet him he dies. With only a few pieces of correspondence to guide her, Gabrielle embarks on a journey from the red-dirt landscape of Western Australia to the English seaside town of Harwich in a quest to understand her family’s past and Stow’s place in it.

Moving Among Strangers is a celebration of one of Australia’s most enigmatic and visionary writers.

Review

In Moving Among Strangers, Gabrielle Carey intertwines the histories of the reclusive Australian writer Randolph Stow, and that of her acutely reserved mother, Joan, who both grew up in Geraldton, Western Australia. Carey has lived most of her life on the east coast, and it isn’t until her mother becomes ill that she initiates contact with Stow and begins to stitch together a history with her kin in Western Australia.

Within their correspondence, Stow offers Carey shards of her mother’s younger self. They are generous (and quite novelistic) in their specificity, and provide a starting point for touring the past her mother kept so stoically private.

Following her mother’s death from cancer, we see Carey travel to the west, to the red-dirt farmsteads of her mother’s and Stow’s youth. It is from here that Carey offers her reader a biography of Stow, and carefully knits the settings and characters of his novels, like Tourmaline and The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, to this arid landscape and Stow’s psychology. This excursion also allows Carey to construct a map of Stow’s preoccupations, from his pursuit for spiritual meaning to his obsession with the Batavia tragedy, which Stow held to be the ‘dark side of sunny Australia’.

This is also a family memoir, and Carey writes with clarity and frankness of her troubling heritage. Her writing glints sharpest, for me, when turned to her older sister, Catherine. For much of their lives, Catherine is Carey’s ‘reliable narrator’ of family stories, and Carey exquisitely describes the shift of losing faith in the narrative her adored, but at times, loathed, older sister imparts.

Later, Carey arrives in the seaside town of Harwich, in England, where Stow lived out much of the rest of his life a solitary figure. She gathers with people who knew him in the village pub, but the locals offer Carey details that conflict with the biography she has plotted. That Carey still has only a slippery hold on some parts of Stow’s past is, by now, somewhat irrespective; she has still superbly gifted us a tender reminder of his significance.


Belle Place is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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