Living in two worlds: the beguiling craftmanship of Randolph Stow
16 June 2016
The Girl Green as Elderflower by Randolph Stow, 1980, Text Classics, Melbourne, 184 pages, ISBN: 978-1925240283. Amazon Books: hard Cover $US9.14. Kindle $US6.95
I HAVE just finished reading Randolph Stow’s 1980 novel, The Girl Green as Elderflower.
It is a wonderfully crafted text that evokes both the idiosyncrasies of its setting and a kind of magical realism that is beguiling and enchanting.
The setting has a particular resonance for me because it is based in Suffolk in England where I lived as a child, not too many years before the period described by Stow. Among other things he evokes the curious Suffolk dialect perfectly – it was the language I spoke when I arrived in Australia in 1956.
There are deeper meanings in the book however, and it follows directly from his earlier Papua New Guinea-based novel, Visitants.
All of Stow’s novels, as the novels of most writers, are firmly based on personal experience and it was never more so than with these two books.
The nexus between the realities that generated Visitants and the fictional story in the novel has always intrigued me, not least because some of the facts were deliberately obscured both by Stow himself and by the Australian administration of the time.
Suzanne Falkiner’s recent biography of Stow, simply called Mick, has helped me to understand part of the puzzle but not its entirety. This later novel fills in many gaps and I think it was intended by Stow to do exactly that, both for himself and his readers.
The Girl Green as Elderflower serves as a personal retrospective 20 years after the traumatic underlying events depicted in Visitants. It is, for Stow, a kind of laying to rest of demons.
In that sense, I think if I was recommending either book I would insist that both be read together and in sequential order; that is if one was interested in understanding Stow himself and the events that helped make him.
Without this, I think this second novel, whilst enjoyable and enchanting in its own right, would present itself as an unrelated curiosity more than anything richer and deeper. And this is probably why some people find his novels difficult to understand. To understand Stow’s novels you have to understand Stow himself.
The other thing I found intriguing about The Girl Green as Elderflower was the melding of reality and magic, which Stow achieves by the use of old Suffolk folk myths.
And this is where it gets interesting because, whereas the novel is set in a bucolic rural setting in East Anglia, it is unquestionably about Papua New Guinea.
In the novel there are references to narrator Crispin Clare’s unsettling time in the Trobriand Islands, not least by the inclusion of asides in the Kiriwina language, but more than that there is a clear sense that Stow has carried away that peculiar Melanesian merging of the natural and supernatural worlds.
This is fascinating because it is very much the case in modern Papua New Guinea. Despite the adoption of Western ways and all the hard-nosed pragmatism this implies, most Papua New Guineans still live between these two worlds.
It is something that I find delightful and has informed much of what I write. To that I attribute my Irish roots.
Perhaps, by juxtaposing the old world beliefs of somewhere like Suffolk, a world that was still very real when I was a lad, with a place on the other side of the world in the Trobriand Islands Stow demonstrates the universality of the human condition.
But I would emphasise, if you are going to read The Girl Green as Elderflower, and you should if you haven’t already, then first read Visitants.
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