Tamarisk Row, Gerald Murnane

Tamarisk Row (1974), Gerald Murnane’s first published novel, is a fictionalised account of his boyhood in Bendigo (here called ‘Basset’) in the late 1940s. Murnane was born in 1939, so these are his primary school years. His second novel, covering his high school years in Melbourne, and a year in a Catholic seminary, was A Lifetime on Clouds (1976), which was only recently expanded and republished as A Season on Earth (2019).

In a Foreword dated 2007 Murnane writes that it took him years to get started, that he first had to discard any literary theory he had learned: “Even after I seemed to myself to have grasped something of the literary theory then fashionable, that theory remained wholly unrelated to my experiences as a reader of fiction, let alone a would-be writer of it.”

I complained in my review that A Season on Earth begins quite conventionally. That is not true of Tamarisk Row whose writing is immediately familiar to the reader of his later works, A Million Windows, Border Districts.

I have my own term for the sort of narration that I used in Tamarisk Row. I call it considered narration. It might be said of some works of fiction that they bring to life certain characters. I would hope that the text of Tamarisk Row could be said to have brought to life the fictional personage responsible for it: the narrator through whose mind the text is reflected.

All of Murnane’s familiar themes are right there in the first few pages – his fascination with the plains of central Victoria and the Mallee stretching endlessly to the north and west; his immersion in Roman Catholic doctrine; his endless curiosity (and ignorance) about girls; the way he experiences light through glass; the life his protagonist, Clement Killeaton, lives in his imagination

Clement sees strange creatures in coloured glass

When the sun is low in the sky west of Basset a peculiar light shines in the panel of the greenish/gold glass in the Killeatons’ front door. Creatures neither green nor gold but more richly coloured than any grass or sun try to find their way home through a land where cities of unpredictable shapes and colours rise up on plains of fiery haze …

Of course Murnane’s most famous fascination, in life, is with horse racing, as spectacle I think, though here Clement’s father is both a hopeless gambler, and in a small way, a racehorse owner-trainer. ‘Tamarisk Row’ is in fact the name of an imaginary horse and also of an imaginary farm in the far back corner of Clement’s back yard where the wife waits for her husband to return from the races and will remove all her clothes and lie naked with him if the horse has done well.

There is a narrative arc – Clement progresses through St Bridget’s school, run by nuns, and into the first year of the boys school run by the Brothers; he doesn’t grow out of wanting to see girls’ knickers, though the few times he is successful in persuading a girl to remove them, I am not sure he believes or understand what he sees; Clement’s father travels the state laying bets for a big Melbourne gambler, with the sting that will set him up for life always in the future, and meanwhile falling increasingly in debt; their own horse, obtained cheaply after failing in Melbourne, is slowly trained up to cause a surprise on a distant country racetrack.

Clement’s father teaches him that a real stayer takes up a comfortable position near the rear of the field, waiting until the winning post is in sight before making his run and closing in on the leaders, which strategy Clement applies not just to the imaginary races he runs in the backyard, with marbles for horses, or to his own efforts as a runner at school, but also to his exams, passing up easy marks in the earlier tests to close on the class leader in Geography, his best subject, only to fall agonizingly short.

As his debts grow Clement’s father’s position becomes increasingly untenable. He enters his horse, Sternie, in a maiden handicap in a distant town, over a distance that doesn’t suit it, and without the money to back it anyway, but persuades ‘friends’ to back it for him

He knows that if Sternie is beaten he might never load another horse onto a float in the early morning and travel with him to some town where all the mystery and uncertainty of far northern distances gathers for one afternoon at the far side of a racecourse. [The jockey] will go on riding other men’s horses and men like [his ‘friends’] will cheer home winners that land them bets of hundreds of pounds, but Killeaton might never again send his colours out towards an imprecise horizon and watch them being shifted about by forces he has no control over and wait to see swept back towards him a great jumble of colours and signs and patterns …

I love the flow of Murnane’s writing, could follow it forever irrespective of the presence or absence of meaning, or of my understanding of its meaning, but there is the added attraction that Clement, in Catholic schools, and I a protestant in the state school system, seemingly shared great chunks of our childhood and adolescence, in country Victoria, only occasionally aware of adults, misunderstanding girls, living in books and our imaginations, in that distant time before “the sixties”.

.

Gerald Murnane, Tamarisk Row, first pub. 1974. This edition, Giramondo, 2008. 285pp.


Tamarix are deciduous shrubs or trees imported from Asia, possibly via the US, growing 1–18 m in height and forming dense thickets. They usually grow on saline soils (wiki) and are weeds in Australia, displacing native flora. The largest, Athel Pine (Tamarix aphylla), found throughout the outback, is an evergreen tree that can grow to 18 m tall, but Murnane was more likely referring to Saltcedar (Tamarix ramosissima) – pictured – which is more common in Victoria.

29 thoughts on “Tamarisk Row, Gerald Murnane

  1. Well, I did not know that about Tamarisk trees. I just Googled it and found a very long technical report about our environmental weeds, and frustratingly not in alphabetical order, eventually I found Tamarix ramosissima which yes, is highly invasive etc.
    Very attractive to native birds, they were very common in the 70s and 80s here, less so now, I assume, because I don’t often see them. I don’t suppose it matters much that they are weeds in inner Melbourne, more so in the outer suburbs and beyond.
    I’m reading Last Letter to a Reader at the moment, and loving it. It’s not long, and I could romp through it in a day, but I don’t want to.

    Like

    • I’m also reading LTAR and started off romping through it, but have got a little bogged down in the middle. Murnane’s appreciation of his own self-importance is best in small doses!

      “I love the flow of Murnane’s writing, could follow it forever irrespective of the presence or absence of meaning, or of my understanding of its meaning” is exactly how I felt when I read The Plains a few years ago.

      Like

      • Bron, there’s not much else I can say! Murnane’s style of writing and reflecting on what he is writing is both hypnotic and poetic. And through it all he holds himself wide open to our gaze.

        Like

      • Oh *pout* I don’t think he’s self-important. True, he’s convinced that what he does is significant — how could he not be when he’s been nominated for the Nobel? but I find his musings intriguing.

        Like

    • I know very little about plants. I imagine that if I’ve seen Tamarisks in the wild I’ve imagined them to be acacias, maybe sheoaks. The foreword to this Giramondo edition reads very similarly to how Bron described Last Letter. Perhaps Murnane is concerned that if the text stands alone we will read it ‘wrongly’.

      Like

      • TBH I think Murnane knows that none of us will ‘read it right’ at first reading, or maybe never. But (based on hearing him speak at a rare author event) I don’t think he minds. I think he writes for himself, and though he’s happy to be published, he’s relaxed about how people interpret what he writes, even though he remonstrates with his readers sometimes. Notably on the subject of whether or not such an invention as a character can exist!

        Like

      • It was interesting what he (Murnane) wrote in the Foreword, that his writing is intended to bring to life the narrator, not the characters. You can see that in A Million WIndows for instance where the narrator is observing/imagining all these other writers while insisting that ‘he’ himself is fictional – a product of the author’s imagination (and skill).

        Like

  2. I loved this book. My GR review says “Written in the third person the reader gets a magnificent child’s eye view of his world that covers, among other things, birds, colours, horse-racing, school, sexual awakening, religion, family life and more. At times so totally lyrical in delivery but then so stream of consciousness. But it just works! Imagine being able to write with such a childlike view of your life but making it relevant to an adult reader. I am in awe. I don’t pretend that this review can do this magnificent book justice.”

    Like

    • I don’t think we ever do the best books justice. All we can do is say how they affect us and persuade as best we can the non-committed to read them.
      I didn’t think enough about his child’s eye view, nor about how it subtly changes as he ages from 6 to 11. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh dear, I copied this sentence, “I love the flow of Murnane’s writing, could follow it forever irrespective of the presence or absence of meaning, or of my understanding of its meaning” before I saw Brona had quoted it back to you too, but I decided to continue. I have wanted to read Tamarisk Row for a long time, ever since I read his sort-of memoir, Something for the pain, which was just so interesting.

    Like

    • I pick up books as I see them in second hand shops and then read them A) when the time is right; and B) when I happen to notice them on my shelves. But I don’t have Something for the Pain, I’ll have to keep a lookout.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lisa didn’t like it because of the racing but I found it fascinating and enlightening. BTW I have a lot of books like that … secondhand, gifts, remainders, bought new. Am starting to move some on as I know I’ll never read them.

        Like

      • It’s one of the great pleasures of my life to have a ‘limitless’ supply of books on hand for me to select from. Disposing of them can be the kids’ problem (Some of them have been on Holloway shelves for a century, and I could easily imagine them seeing out another).

        Liked by 1 person

  4. My brother introduced me to Murnane long ago Bill, and I’ve always felt the same way about his writing!

    My Dad got me involved in horse racing (his great love!) as soon as I was old enough to enter the member’s stand at Rose Hill (I think I was 12?), and interestingly he taught me the same thing about picking a winner. He made a large amount of money from gambling on the horses, so I paid attention to what he said! He used to get me to “innocently” eavesdrop on conversations among the trainers and report back to him what I’d heard! I’m afraid I was corrupted rather young.

    I’ll definitely look this book up, thanks for the review!

    Like

    • I hope you let us know what you think of it, Sue. I can’t say the horse racing bits – ie. most of it – didn’t make sense, but I’m sure you will find them a lot more familiar than I did.
      You probably know, another author who incorporates a lot of horse racing and gambling in his stories is Peter Temple.

      Like

      • I haven’t read anything by Peter Temple Bill, but a quick Google tells me he writes crime fiction. Horse racing is corrupt of course, so that makes sense!

        I enjoyed Border Districts even when I wasn’t quite sure where Murnane was headed, simply because his prose seemed to wonderful.

        Like

  5. I might have to read this. We had a tree in the ‘horse paddock’ at Mt Hooghly that mum referred to as a Tamarisk- I remember the pink flowers.

    Like

    • Nice to have you here Kay, especially given that you get a mention every year or so. For everyone who doesn’t know her, Kay grew up on a farm on the edge of Mt Hooghly, south of Dunolly (so in the same Central Victoria region as Bendigo). I don’t remember a horse, though.

      I’m sure you’ll recognise most of the places Clement goes, following the creek around Bendigo. You might have to take me on a tour.

      Like

  6. Given that this book has horse racing and you love the lyrical prose (someone else described it as occasionally stream-of-conscious), I’ll bet you would get on swimmingly with Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, which won the National Book Award in 2010. I haven’t read it yet, but loved loved loved her book Bogeywoman and shouted about it for a while summer.

    Would you consider writing a post about the Holloway book collection? Your comment about it being a century old and one of the great pleasures of your life was interesting and sweet, and I want to know more about the story of this collection.

    Like

    • I looked up Lord of Misrule. it does look interesting, and on much the same topic. Though of course Tamarisk Row is a kid’s eye view and he doesn’t always understand what is going on.

      I could write about the Holloway book collection. I’ll write about anything with enough encouragement. I’ll let it stew for a while and see if an angle occurs to me. Dad had 3 or 4 very old books in a display case which I never thought to ask about, and my brothers nabbed them and left me just the remaining one thousand or so on the shelves in his study.

      Like

      • I’m even trying to imagine where these books are because I know you live in an apartment, and those aren’t notorious for having a study or library space in them. I also did not realize you have brothers!

        Like

      • B2, B3, B4 whom I sometimes mention, are my (younger) brothers. My 3 bedroom apartment is 84m (840 sq feet, I think) so it’s a squeeze. One bedroom is set aside as a study. But anyway, I’ll write it up for you some time in the coming year (with a photo of the big black spider who keeps the flies down, in one corner of the window).

        Like

  7. This sounds fascinating and very absorbing. It’s lovely to read books by or about contemporaries sometimes, isn’t it (though not when something horrible happens to your contemporary, as I encountered once!).

    Like

    • I always enjoy being taken back to aspects of the earlier parts of my life. Growing up in rural Victoria in the 1950s – pre Televison, pre the post-War waves of migration – I often find Depression-era books closer to home than those written in the cities in the 1960s. But I’ve often remarked Murnane who is 12 years older than I, gets the atmosphere of my childhood and adolescence almost perfectly.

      Like

  8. This sounds very absorbing. It’s always interesting to read novels from people who seem to have shared big chunks of our experiences, even (especially) when they have had quite different backgrounds.

    Like

    • It is. And on top of that Murnane is one of our very best writers. He got passed over for the Nobel, he gets passed over the people who pass themselves off as literary award judges here, but he is definitely one of the greats.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve got a collection of his stories marked, on my library’s “saved” list, which is where they live in my mind until they are requested and turn into “holds” which I thought was due to WGums but could have been influenced by you and Lisa too, by the sounds of it. Interesting that he and Temple are both about horse-racing. I think of the American writer Jane Smiley when I think of horse-racing “over this way”. I also liked learning that you have a resident spider keeper, monitoring your shared domain.

    Like

    • I have and have reviewed the collection Landscape with Landscape which was my introduction to Murnane and which blew me away. I’m not interested in racing but Temple in particular brings it alive. I was talking just yesterday to Milly about the spider that shares my study – she refused to even look at a photo. It’s maybe 5cm across and jet black. Sometimes it comes out from behind the venetians and stands on the window sill at my right hand staring at me.

      Like

      • I’ve been respectful and curious about spiders for awhile (web weavers, storytellers, Anansi!) but I only recently started to find out some interesting things about them and think I should have a little “spider project”. We’ve had resident spiders outside on the porch who were familiar and responsive, but not inside (yet?).

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s