Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 17, 2011

Tourmaline (1963), by Randolph Stow, narrated by Francis Greenslade

It wasn’t until I got to the end of this audio book that I realised why I was so mystified by parts of it.  The foreword by Anthony J. Hassall, is at the end of the narration, and it was explained that this, Randolph Stow’s fourth novel, wasn’t well-received (after the great success of  To the Islands).   In To The Islands Stow’s central character struggles with the metaphysics of the familiar Christian religion in conflict with ancient Aboriginal spiritual beliefs but apparently in Tourmaline the novel juxtaposes Revivalist religion with Taoism – about which I know nothing at all and so it all went completely over my head!  Presumably that’s how most of Stow’s reading public reacted as well…

But the first chapter was wonderful. It was written in 1963, but it seems a story very much for our time in some ways.  It takes place in a dying outback town called Tourmaline after some kind of nuclear catastrophe.  The town is depopulated, there are no children at all except possibly in the Aboriginal camp – but the White inhabitants don’t know about that for sure since they have so little contact with the indigenous people.   These townsfolk are marooned in a hostile landscape wracked by drought.  The gold mine which brought the town into existence is all worked out, and there’s nothing to do except argue and drink.

Into this sad microcosm of a society, a stranger in extremis arrives. He has been rescued from the road by a passing truckie, and he hovers between life and death for a few days. Nursed by the locals, the stranger recovers, and turns out to be a water diviner.

Against his will, the diviner becomes the town’s hope for salvation.  The drought has been so unrelenting that people mock the policeman who, with nostalgia,  remembers street trees, vines on verandahs,  oleanders in bloom and vegetable gardens.  Biblical in its Old Testament punitiveness, the drought, for some, has become a sign of God’s anger.  As ever in Stow’s stories, the Aborigines of Tourmaline are fringe-dwellers, ever-present but never part of the town.  They have adopted the Christian religion and so, with the simple prayers they know, they beseech the lord to bring water back to the town while the townsfolk  hail Michael Random as the saviour who can bring prosperity and a future back to their miserable lives.

But Michael wants to be a saviour of a different sort, and he brings his Revivalist Christian rantings to the town as well.  The only one not impressed is Tom Spring who provokes a lot of arguments with the more credulous inhabitants.  Whether it was because I was listening to the story instead of reading it I am not sure, but from this point on  the religious arguments became more and more confusing and I lost the plot, not recovering it until Random succeeded in finding a new seam of gold.   After that he is pressured to find water but the people dig in vain in the place where he said there was an underground spring.  He ends up going back into the desert from which he so mysteriously came.

I’m still bemused by Stow’s intent in contrasting these two religions, and am torn between buying a print copy of it or giving up on it altogether.  However Roderick Heath has written a really classy review of this novel at English One-O-Worst which made me think that perhaps if I read a print version of it, I might enjoy it more .

I also wasn’t very keen on the narration by Frances Greenslade.  His voice has a raspiness which grated after a while.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Randolph Stow
Title: Tourmaline (the audio book seems to be unavailable but you may have more luck with the book)
Publisher: Louis Braille Audio, 2004
ISBN: 0732028353
Source: Kingston Library


  1. I really must get a stow to try Lisa ,I m not sure if I ll try this one ,great see his books still available in audio ,wonder if they are in UK ,all the best stu


    • I’d suggest Merry-go-round in the sea as your first choice, Stu.


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