Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 208 pages; 2002.
Randolph Stow was an Australian writer who achieved great literary success in his early years. When he was just 22 he won the the 1958 Miles Franklin Award for To The Islands and the ALS Gold Medal, for the same book, in 1959. In 1978 he won the Patrick White Award. But ask the average Australian who he is or, better still, ask them to name the title of one of his books and you will probably be greeted with a blank face.
Perhaps it doesn’t help that Stow only wrote a handful of novels and that he emigrated to the UK circa 1970, effectively turning his back on the Australian literary scene. But it seems such a shame that a man who could craft such amazing fiction, including his mesmirising The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (which I read twice last year I loved it so much) could fall into relative obscurity so quickly.
I read To The Islands not long after I heard that Stow had died of liver cancer, here in the UK, in late May. (The news story of his death, published in The Australian, is very touching, but the comments are particularly telling of how dearly he was held in the affection of so many.)
It’s an astonishing read, not least because he was just 22 when he wrote it (and this, I have to point out, was not his first novel, but his third). It’s not only ambitious in scope, but there’s a wisdom to the story that belies his years. That the book is largely told through the eyes of an ageing Anglican missionary confronting his own inner demons seems a remarkable work of imagination and daring for one so young.
Stow’s carefully studied observations about the relationships between white Europeans and Aboriginals are also particularly perceptive. That may not be too surprising given he did spend some time working as a storeman on an Anglican mission in the far north of Western Australia immediately after graduation, but even so, he has captured the fear, violence and misunderstanding between blacks and whites incredibly well, and he has not been afraid to cast a light on some of the darkest, most gruesome events, in Australian history.
The story, as you may have gathered, is set on a remote mission in the Western Australian outback in 1957. Here, the Church of England provides lodging, employment and medical care for aboriginals, a race which has few civil rights (“Someday we all be citizens, eh, brother?” quips one aboriginal to one of the brothers in an early scene) and is forbidden to drink alcohol. (In the preface to my edition, Stow points out that alcohol did not become a problem until the 1970s.)
An ageing missionary, Stephen Heriot, has ruled the mission for decades. One of the younger missionaries, Helen, describes him as “stone and iron” and “impassive, accustomed through decades to deal with wooings, marriages, disputes”.
But when Rex, a troublesome aboriginal, returns to the mission, Heriot is determined to have him banished. Younger members of the mission are less sure about sending him away (“It begins to look a bit like victimisation,” Way warns him; “He not a bad man, Rex. You don’t give him no chance,” says a fellow aboriginal, Richard.)
But one wild night, in the middle of a storm, Heriot believes he may have killed Rex. Full of remorse, he flees the mission on horseback, taking a rifle and a box of cartridges with him. What follows is a kind of adventure story, in which Heriot, confronted by the enormity of the unexplored wilderness around him, begins to experience a spiritual awakening. Meanwhile, his fellow missionaries try to track him down, convinced that Heriot plans to kill himself…
There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a quintessential Australian story. Stow’s descriptions of the landscape are always beautiful and, for this expat Australian, homesick-inducing. But even if you have never been to Australia, Stow has a way of conjuring the beauty of the surroundings that will make you feel like you have walked the terrain, smelt the eucalyptus, swum in the creeks and billabongs, seen all the amazing wildlife around you.
From the water flagged with lily leaves, lilies flowering among them, birds rose in sudden stages with a clatter of wings. Ibis and white cranes climbed slowly, wild ducks wheeled, and returned, and flew off again. Geese trailed their long cry over the plain, a single black jabiru following.
Before they had gone the children were already in the water, floundering among the lilies, crying to one another of the coolness of it and of its richness in ducks and flowers. The small children danced naked in the shallows with shining skins. The others, in brief pants, some girls in their dresses, dolphined among the lily stems.
It’s interesting, too, to see how prescient Stow’s views are on race relations given he penned the novel more than 50 years ago. I particularly liked this exchange between Heriot and one of his fellow missionaries, Way:
“As they [the aboriginals] lose simplicity they lose direction. So, what are we going to do with them? Who’s going to teach them trades, give them confidence in themselves? Drive them out of this inertia they fall into now their pride’s grown enough to make them want above everything to have some sort of competence. I don’t know the answers.”
“We’re promised a technical school, some day, somewhere within a hundred miles.”
“I wish it well,” said Heriot. “And you. Because you’re coming to the most heartbreaking phase in the history of this problem.”
“We’ll do our best, I hope.”
“I hope,” echoed Heriot, and looked at Way, that capable middle-aged man, reflectively and approved him. “You’ve time, I think, to see enormous changes, perhaps the end of physical misery among them, as the old ones die out in the way we old ones do. But in the end you’ll have something else to face – misery of the mind. And that will be the hardest, Way.”
This is a fascinating novel, one that can easily be read in one sitting, although I think it probably requires at least two read-throughs to fully come to grips with all the ideas presented. Many literary critics have dubbed it a “masterpiece” and I can see why.
As an aside, I read the “very slightly abridged” 1982 edition (which was republished by UQP in 2002) and not the original. Stow says he revised it because it contained “many faults, due partly to immaturity, but more to the fact that my technical competence was not equal to my ambition, which in retrospect makes me realise how horizons narrow in middle age”. (The great Irish writer John McGahern did much the same with his 1974 novel The Leavetaking for similar reasons, so he’s in good company. And, if I’m honest, there’s much about Stow’s work that reminds me of McGahern.)
Stow also claims to have cut out some of the Christian mission-station propaganda involving a “good deal of talk by the white characters about their difficulties and hopes, and even a very tepid love-interest, introduced not for its own sake but to suggest that at least two Europeans would remain committed to the Mission”.
Sadly, To The Islands seems to have fallen out of print, although you might score a very cheap second-hand copy on Amazon Marketplace if you are lucky.
For another take on the same novel, please read Lisa Hill’s review on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.