At the risk of pulling back the curtains and revealing the Wizard that pedals the levers in my head, I think it worth explaining that when the Guardian first approached me about which Australian book to take into lockdown, I was quite unsettled.
Should I choose a novel that I think under-appreciated and undervalued? Should I use positive discrimination in my choice? Should I choose the contemporary and au courant? Or should I be deliberately anti-fashion?
My being disconcerted speaks to the obsession with the “curated self” that we all now have in the digital age: every choice must be scrutinised for its moral and political purport. But in the end, I decided to trust my instincts. I had returned home from overseas in mid-March of this year and, knowing I was to enter a fortnight’s quarantine and then a subsequent period of quietude, I picked a handful of books off the shelves that I just had to read again. The only Australian book I chose in that initial cluster was Randolph Stow’s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea.
I came to Randolph Stow embarrassingly late. Seventeen years ago or so, I picked up a copy of Tourmaline in a secondhand bookshop. The memory of diving into that book is surprisingly strong: I can still recall the narrow, cramped spaces between the bookshelves, the scent of dust and cats and brewed coffee, the stained and torn opening pages of the novel. I remember it all so clearly because the book made a tremendous impression on me.
I had never quite come across a novel like Tourmaline before. Nicholas Rothwell has written of the book, released in 1963, that “it depicted the same Australia that was becoming known from the paintings of Sidney Nolan and Richard Drysdale: a visual, sensory space”. And it’s true. There is an eeriness and melancholy to Tourmaline, and the outback that it depicts is stunningly beautiful and overwhelmingly lonely. The main character is Michael Random, and he is looking for God. But he can’t find God because the deities of this landscape are much more ancient than the God of his Christian faith. He doesn’t know how to see.
I don’t think it’s a completely successful novel. The mysticism is often grating and overstated and the deliberate high modernist flourishes of the writing now seem florid. But it’s intriguing. It captures the dislocation of being a white body in a land that doesn’t belong to you. I don’t know any other novel that better essays the shame and resentment of colonial settlement; nor the conflict between on one hand experiencing awe and love of this land, and then on the other feeling betrayed by knowing it cannot ever truly be part of you. As a novel it is unresolved, but how can it be else? The questions it asks have yet to find resolution.
I devoured Tourmaline. I returned to the bookshop and I found The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, which came out two years later, in 1965.
If Tourmaline is agitation, a novel that suggests that the ghosts of this land will never be at rest, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea is peace. I think it is the loveliest work in Australian literature. There are more epic and astounding novels: White’s The Tree of Man or Wright’s Carpenteria. But Stow’s novel is joyous from its wickedly lyrical opening paragraph – its virtuosity is so wonderful that as a reader I felt like leaping up from the sofa and applauding – to the solemnity and absolute rightness of its wise denouement.
It is the simplest of stories, that of coming of age; and one of its great pleasures is that it recognises that childhood has a different consciousness and a different language to that of adulthood: the adult writer is glimpsed only through the beauty and poetic assuredness of the language. Otherwise Stow remains faithful to the young child’s story he’s telling. What differentiates it from so many other similar works of fiction is that there is no smugness in its evocation of the puzzling adult world. It is remarkably gracious and remarkably fair, as well as being so exquisitely written.
For all the anxiety and confusion that has come from the Covid-19 crisis, the truth is that I have very much enjoyed the opportunity for stillness. I suppose this is why my hand instinctively reached for the Stow novel. It unfolds at a composed, quiet pace.
Maybe it does so because Stow was from Western Australia. Unlike we Australian writers from “over east”, there isn’t the hostile defensiveness and resentfulness at the tyranny of distance. This is just the way it is. I admire this quality very much in Western Australian literature. It is a graciousness and it is there in some of the Australian works I love most. That grace is there in Sally Morgan’s My Place and in Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net. It’s there in Winton’s Cloudstreet. And it’s there in some of our greatest popular music: in the poetry and songcraft of The Triffids’ David McComb.
All these works, along with the Stow novel, are redolent with the impressions of sand and sea and heat and impossible horizons; and they so tenderly evoke the sense of being at the far side of the world. They seem at peace with that. It’s why I think Stow’s novel is the right one for me to read at this moment. To re-read it feels a little like a thanksgiving.
• Christos Tsiolkas will join Tara June Winch for Guardian Australia’s book club on Zoom on Friday 12 June at 1pm AEST. The theme of this month’s event, hosted by Michael Williams and presented by Australia @ Home, is the Australian book you should read next. Click here to register