Moving Among Strangers by Gabrielle Carey
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.