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.