I couldn’t put down Gabrielle Carey’s memoir, Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family (UQP, 2013), so in one important sense, it is a successful book. Yet I was reading it most of all to learn more about the enigmatic Western Australian writer Stow, and on Stow the book intensifies the mystery of the man, whetting my appetite for more without satisfying.
Carey’s mother was friends with Stow when they were both young, and she wrote to him when her mother was dying. After a brief correspondence remembering the links between the families and mentioning some things Carey never knew about her own family, Stow retreated from further contact and died not long after. Carey attended the tribute held in his honour in Perth, and the trip prompted her to re-establish contact with the estranged Perth side of her family. She finds herself embarked on two quests: to understand the secret lives of her parents, and to understand the reason for Stow’s retreat to England to work a barman and publish very little in the last forty years of his life. The connection between the two strands does not always feel strong enough, or more that they seem such different goals. At one point Carey comments on what a messy person she is, and it is a messy book in some ways (in a good and bad way), delighting in co-incidence between the two quests and moving forward with a kind of stream of consciousness. It has the immediacy and pace of a quickly written book, and also some of the lack of polish.
Carey is careful to tell Stow’s associates that she is not his biographer (p. 207); ‘Stow already had an authorised biographer who had actually met him and interviewed him and had been working on his project for more than ten years. My book was something else, although I didn’t try to explain what. I wasn’t sure myself.’ I hope this book is only an appetiser for Roger Averill’s book, when it finally appears, and that it will be the successful account of Stow’s life which Stow deserves and the biographer no doubt deserves after so long invested in the project. (Earlier in the book, she briefly describes meeting Averill in the UWA Reid Cafe, and I couldn’t help imagining I could have been there, typing away on my laptop, not aware of the conversation going on nearby.)
Carey is indiscreet and opinionated, saying things many people would not put in print (‘I…deceived my last husband to have an affair with a younger man from my yoga class’), and perhaps her disarming honesty is part of the book’s appeal. Her judgements are often funny; sometimes grating, when she says something I don’t like, such as generalisations about Western Australia.
It feels to me that the real subject is Carey herself, and that is only a problem if one is wanting the real subject to be something else. I think I tend to find every memoir a little indulgent, which is probably largely an attitude I was brought up with. It might also be the attitude of a biographer, for whom the focus should be on the other, the historical subject one is recovering.
That said, I am fascinated by the genre of biographical quest, and this book has strong elements of it. The quest to uncover the truth of the subjects reveals things the protagonist never knew about their heritage and about their character. It leads them to exotic places (well, Perth, Geraldton and Old Harwich). Some of the story is told in the letters of the subjects. All these elements are present; it’s just that Carey is not trying to produce a true biography of either her mother or Stow, but a memoir of the quest itself. A book should never be judged by what it is not trying to be, and it really is an interesting book.