Monday, 29 January 2018

Book Review - Tourmaline by Randolph Stow

Tourmaline by Randolph Stow

London: Minerva, 1991 (originally published Secker & Warburg, 1983)

ISBN 074939188X

I've stated before that I consider Randolph Stow one of Australia's great novelists. Tourmaline is a book of evocative splendour, mystery, tragedy and forbearance.

Set somewhere in the Western Australian Goldfields area, Tourmaline is a fictional town that once had gold, and water. While there is still gold to be found, the water has long since gone, and with it the town, with only a few stragglers living in the ruins of a grander past. The story is told by "the Law", and aged man who resides in the ruins of the courthouse, surrounded by pages from old cases.

It is clear that nothing has happened in Tourmaline for a long time, with the only thing approaching excitement being the arrival of the monthly delivery truck from over the hills. It seems that this is Tourmaline's only contact with the outside world.

When the truck arrives and leaves behind a half-dead young man that was found on the road, things begin to change, and change rapidly. It soon gets around that the stranger, Mike Random, is a diviner, and many people begin to think he may use his skill to bring back the glory days. Only Kestrel, the publican, doesn't like him, partly because Mike has usurped his position as the leader of the community, but mostly because Mike has turned the eye of his "wife", Deb.

As the story unfolds (in the form of a "testament" written by the Law), the reader learns that Mike is a deeply troubled individual, wrestling with God. When he uses his skills to find a gold reef, the whole town helps with the mining and belief grows to a fever pitch. Meanwhile, Kestrel, after badly beating his alcoholic cousin Byrnie - an early acolyte of Mike's - and being himself attacked by Deb (who then leaves him), has left town and closed the pub.

Mike begins calling the townspeople to the (ruined) church in the evenings, where they engage in ecstatic singing and prayer. Some of the Aboriginals believe Mike is the reincarnation of the dreaming spirit, while the Law sees him as bringing the town together and giving it purpose. Only old Dave Speed the prospector and Tom Spring the storekeeper see Mike as a fraud.

The Law, after talking more with Mike, realises that, contrary to his early claims, he wasn't traversing the desert to get to Tourmaline at all, but in an attempt at suicide. Eventually the townspeople realise Mike is a fraud when he doesn't bring them the promised water. Then Kestrel returns and takes the mantle of leader of the - is cult the right word? - from Mike, who disappears back into the desert from which he sprang.

The last words of the Law's testament suggest that Kestrel too has failed to revive the town, as all returns to sand.

There are obvious themes in this book to do with belief and power, with the townspeople wanting to believe that water can return, and the diviner abusing that desire for his own selfish ends. Kestrel realises that Mike has exposed a weakness in the people, so when Mike's hold is broken he steps in. Other questions are also asked by chracters in this book: what do you need versus what you want? what is love and how do you know when you have it? is it good to live in the past? what is the nature of God?

The other high point of this, and indeed of all Stow's work, is the expert use of language to paint a picture. His descriptive writing is fantastic, from the way he evokes a dry, dusty and dying town, to his evolution of the characters. The language used is simple but highly effective in conveying visual pictures. I particularly enjoyed both the evocation of the effects of sunlight and moonlight on the landscape and buildings of the town...."The sky is the garden of Tourmaline."

If you are at all interested in Australian literature, I can highly recommend all of Stow's books. This one is fantastic.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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