Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family
is a memoir by Gabrielle Carey about her mother's life-long relationship with the reclusive novelist Randolph Stow. Carey sends a letter to Stow informing him of her mother's impending death and soon finds herself entrenched in a whirlwind investigation, trying to piece together her own estrangement from her family's west Australian roots, as well as Stow's relationship to her extended family. The book is in many ways a companion memoir to Carey's earlier book, The Waiting Room,
which recounts the last five days of her mother's life as she struggles with terminal stomach cancer.
In 2009, Gabrielle Carey's mother is dying of terminal cancer. Carey writes about this experience in her book The Waiting Room
, exploring her role as a daughter and mother, in relation to her own parents. In Moving Among Strangers
, Carey writes about sending a letter to the author Randolph Stow, an old acquaintance of her mother's. This letter offers the context for her second memoir, in which Carey investigates her mother's hidden life as a London socialite.
Randolph Stow, an acclaimed writer living in a self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom during this period, responds to Carey's letter with heartfelt thoughts, warm wishes to the family, and recollections of some of the family stories Carey knew well. What Carey wasn't expecting, however, were Stow's stories about her mother's “letters from London” – a series of dispatches written to Stow when he was young in Australia, about her mother's life as a socialite in London.
Carey thinks of her mother as reliable, steadfast, and pragmatic, but Stow's letters reveal a more bohemian side to her mother, Joan. Carey had never heard a single story of her mother's time living in London, and she soon realizes that she didn't know her mother at all – though she always felt her mother was a mystery and a private person, she did not realize there were whole swathes of her mother's life that she never knew existed.
According to Stow, Carey's mother was a London socialite, going to art galleries, ballets, and pursuing a tumultuous relationship with Carey's father, a man named Alex whom she met on a park bench. Carey had never heard the stories of her mother's frequent separations from her father when they were younger, or about her mother's passion for a particular young ballerina, Elaine Fifeld. During this time, Carey learned, Stow was also sending her mother poems to consider and edit – notes that would contribute to Stow's prolific literary output of three novels and a book in verse by the age of 23.
The central question of Carey's memoir is about why her mother maintained this relationship with Stow, then a boy thirteen years her junior. He was not family, and they had no other clear ties. Carey hoped, many years before her mother's death that a brain tumor that had rendered her mother slightly more unrestrained in her speech would lead to answers. Carey was wrong. Her mother died without any hint of her past life in London, and by the time Carey thought to ask Stow for a tour of the UK, he had also died. The two were deeply private people, and they liked their lives that way, Carey realizes. This was, in part, a source of their bond with each other.
Ultimately, Carey leaves her memoir with many unanswered questions. Nevertheless, in her search, she considers how well one can ever know one's own parents, and what parts of our own history we lose when we lose our parents.
Gabrielle Carey is an Australian writer, perhaps best known for her book Puberty Blues
, which she co-wrote with her friend and then-roommate Kathy Lette. The book was the first published teen novel in Australia written by teenagers. After Puberty Blues
, which was inspired in part by Carey's experience leaving home and dropping out of school at 15 to pursue life alone in Sydney, Australia, Carey wrote another novel, and six books of memoir and personal essays, including The Waiting Room
, Moving Among Strangers
, and In My Father's House.
Carey is now a senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney in the Creative Writing program.