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Authors: Randolph Stow


To the Islands

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JULIAN RANDOLPH ‘MICK’ STOW was born in Geraldton, Western Australia, in 1935. He attended local schools before boarding at Guildford Grammar in Perth, where the renowned author Kenneth Mackenzie had been a student.

While at university he sent his poems to a British publisher. The resulting collection,
Act One
, won the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal in 1957—as did the prolific young writer’s third novel,
To the Islands
, the following year.
To the Islands
also won the 1958 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Stow reworked the novel for a second edition almost twenty-five years later, but never allowed its two predecessors to be republished.

He worked briefly as an anthropologist’s assistant in New Guinea—an experience that subsequently informed
, one of three masterful late novels—then fell seriously ill and returned to Australia. In the 1960s he lectured at universities in Australia and England, and lived in America on a Harkness fellowship. He published his second collection of verse,
; the novel
, on which critical opinion was divided; and his most popular fiction,
The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea

For years afterwards Stow produced mainly poetry, libretti and reviews. In 1969 he settled permanently in England: first in Suffolk, then in Essex, where he moved in 1981. He received the 1979 Patrick White Award.

Randolph Stow died in 2010, aged seventy-four. A private man, a prodigiously gifted yet intermittently silent author, he has been hailed as ‘the least visible figure of that great twentieth-century triumvirate of Australian novelists whose other members are Patrick White and Christina Stead’.




BERNADETTE BRENNAN is a former senior lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Sydney. Her publications include a monograph,
Brian Castro: The Seductive Play of Language
, and two edited collections,
Just Words?: Australian Authors Writing for Justice
Ethical Investigations: Essays on Australian Literature and Poetics
. She is writing a literary biography of Helen Garner and her work.



A Haunted Land

The Bystander


The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea

Midnite: The Story of a Wild Colonial Boy


The Girl Green as Elderflower

The Suburbs of Hell

The Text Publishing Company
Swann House
22 William Street
Melbourne Victoria 3000

Copyright © Randolph Stow 1981
Introduction copyright © Bernadette Brennan 2015

The moral rights of the authors have been asserted.

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication shall be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologises for any errors or omissions and would be grateful if notified of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.

First published by Macdonald, London, 1958
Revised edition published by Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1981
This edition of the revised text published by The Text Publishing Company, 2015

Cover design by WH Chong
Page design by Text
Typeset by Midland Typesetters

Printed in Australia by Griffin Press, an Accredited ISO AS/NZS 14001:2004 Environmental Management System printer

Primary print ISBN: 9781925240290
Ebook ISBN: 9781922253101
Creator: Stow, Randolph, 1935–2010.
Title: To the islands / by Randolph Stow; introduced by Bernadette Brennan.
Series: Text classics.
Dewey Number: A823.3







Strange Country
by Bernadette Brennan


To the Islands

Chapter 01

Chapter 02

Chapter 03

Chapter 04

Chapter 05

Chapter 06

Chapter 07

Chapter 08

Chapter 09

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Strange Country
by Bernadette Brennan

RANDOLPH STOW was only twenty-two when he published
To the Islands
, the haunting tale of an aged missionary on a self-destructive, self-pitying journey towards death. The novel won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1958, a year after the inaugural award was given to
. You can draw a link between these two novels: not because, as some critics have mistakenly suggested, Stow was working in Patrick White’s shadow, but because both books marked a dramatic shift in Australian writing. White and Stow eschewed realism, sending their protagonists on existential journeys into country that was at once the Australian interior and the tortured landscape of the mind.

To the Islands
opens with the old missionary, Stephen Heriot, being roused by an intensity of sound and sensation:

A child dragged a stick along the corrugated-iron wall of a hut, and Heriot woke. His eyes, not yet broken to the light, rested on the mud-brick beside his bed, drifted slowly upwards to the grass-thatched roof. From a rafter an organ-grinder lizard peered sidelong over its pulsing throat.

Oppressed by its thatch, the hot square room had a mustiness of the tropics...Outside, the crows had begun their restless crying over the settlement, tearing at his nerves. The women were coming up to the kitchen. He could hear their laughing, their rich beautiful voices.

The day’s heat is bearing down. Heriot’s books are disintegrating, under attack from insects and mildew. He is exhausted, depressed. His first words, declaiming Baudelaire to the lizard, announce his world-weariness: ‘The sixty-seventh year of my age.
Rien n’égale en longueur les boiteuses journées
—’ (nothing’s as long as the limping days). Quotations from Baudelaire’s
Les fleurs du mal
are a form of shorthand in the book to signify questions of doubt and grief, weakness and self-disgust.

Heriot has lost his faith. He rails against a sense of futility and wants to tear down the mission he has devoted his life to building. In his confusion, fury and arrogance he smashes a crucifix, announcing, Lear-like: ‘I believe in nothing.’ Nothingness, in its many manifestations, tolls throughout the novel.

Stow wrote
To the Islands
after working for some months in 1957 as a ration storeman at the Anglican-run Forrest River Mission, in the far north of Western Australia. Having learned something of the culture, spirituality and language of the Umbalgari people, he sought to honour them, while also affirming what he saw as the important work being done by white Christian missionaries for Indigenous communities in remote Australia. In the 1981 revised edition of
To the Islands
, Stow removed some of the more heavy-handed ‘propaganda’ that celebrated the missionaries’ role, but considered the rest of the text ‘salvageable’. We should be thankful for that assessment, given that he had banned the reprinting of his two earlier novels,
A Haunted Land
(1956) and
The Bystander
To the Islands
, by contrast, has almost never been out of print.

The setting and the focus on Aboriginal culture was groundbreaking in mid-twentieth-century Australian literature. While contemporary readers may baulk at some of Stow’s descriptions and the way Heriot co-opts the Umbalgari language for his corroboree, Stow was one of only a handful of white writers who sought to portray Aboriginal characters with depth and complexity. Katharine Susannah Prichard’s
(1929) and the books of Xavier Herbert, Vance Palmer and Eleanor Dark went some way to giving Indigenous characters a voice, but it was not until the late 1950s that Stow, White and Judith Wright brought this concern to the literary mainstream.

The Onmalmeri massacre, based on the actual Umbali massacre of 1926, haunts
To the Islands
. Heriot, who seeks to atone for the historical atrocities of colonialism, instead realises his own culpability. In a fit of rage he casts a stone at Rex, thinking him killed. Disconsolate, he sets out on a journey to ‘the islands’ of the Aboriginal dead. Like so many heroes of European literature, he must experience exile in order to reconcile with himself and with his place in the world.


To the Islands
is suffused with poetry. While Heriot quotes Gerard Manly Hopkins’ ‘Spring’, it is Hopkins’ great sonnet of religious doubt and despair, number forty-one, that best reflects Heriot’s predicament:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap May who ne’er hung there...

The monumental, ‘rocklike’ Heriot is physically and spiritually a ‘crumbling cliff’. With the help of his trusted Aboriginal friend Justin, he traverses the rugged country of north Western Australia, with its lush vegetation, teeming wildlife, gushing streams and massive red cliffs. But the most difficult cliffs he must negotiate are those in his mind. Stow projects Heriot’s psychic drama of pride and guilt, atonement and eventual self-discovery onto the canvas of country. The novel progresses through a series of cinematic, cross-cutting scenes. Time and space pull together, then dance apart.

Early critics of Stow’s work were troubled by the way he sought to fuse the symbolic and the real, privileging thought and emotion over action. For Stow, however, spirit and land—the internal and the external environments—are indivisible. He explained in
in 1978:

The boundary between an individual and his environment is not his skin. It is the point where mind verges on the pure essence of him, that unchanging observer that for want of a better term we might call the soul. The external factors, geographical and sociological, are so mingled with his ways of seeing and states of mind that he may find it impossible to say what he means by his environment, except in the most personal and introspective terms...The environment of a writer is as much inside him as in what he observes.

In 2013, while researching an article about
To the Islands
and Heriot’s quest, I raised with Roger Averill, Stow’s authorised biographer, the idea of Stow’s extreme sensitivity, his heightened appreciation of his environment. Averill responded:

BOOK: To the Islands
2.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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