Visitants | Randolph Stow

We are continuing our reviews through the great literary genius that is the mostly unknown Randolph Stow. Last week we published our review of THE SUBURBS OF HELL and this week Kernel Deborah Day reviews VISITANTS (originally published in 1979). Stow is considered a lost literary genius but thanks to likewise genius of Text Publishing they are re-releasing these fantastic stories under their Text Classics umbrella. New spiffy covers and available in both paperbacks and e-books. A superb way to archive and to also repackage for new generations. VISITANTS is available now, you will find it in the classic or  section of most bookstores or you can obtain it HERE. Enjoy Deb’s superb as always in-depth review……….all the best……..JK.



Randolph Stow’s VISITANTS is a detailed depiction of tribal politics, violence, colonial administration and power set in the Papuan Trobriand Islands in 1959. The book is unusual in that there is no central narrator. Instead Stow interweaves Dimdim (White people) and Kiriwina (pidgin-English native) voices to produce a haunting portrait of Patrol Officer Alistair Cawdor who grieving, lonely and ailing commits suicide. Five witnesses are called to give evidence at the Government inquiry that follows.


The author, Stow, worked as a cadet patrol officer and as an assistant to anthropologist Charles Julius in New Guinea in the 1950’s when Papua and New Guinea was moving politically from an Australian Territory towards independent statehood. Stow was profoundly unsettled by his time in the Trobriand Islands suffering a physical and mental breakdown following the death of one of his friends through a shark attack. Adding to this his father passed away and Stow required repatriation home to Australia after only five months. Twenty years later, thanks to a grant from the literature Board of the Australian Council in the early part of the Whitlam government in 1973 – 1974, Stow used his personal experiences in the Trobriand Islands to write the VISITANTS.


Born in Western Australia, Julian Randolph “Mick” Stow was the son of a well-connected and successful family that included pastoralists, judges and colonists. As a young man he worked on a Kimberly Aboriginal Mission, an experience that informed his third novel TO THE ISLANDS. For TO THE ISLANDS Stow was awarded the Australian Literature Gold Medal in 1958, as well as the Miles Franklin Award. VISITANTS, like TO THE ISLANDS, is an anthropological exploration of the ways in which indigenous and white societies acutely observe the other, even while they believe each other ignorant. For Stow it seems that the limited perspective of each group, coupled with cultural differences can preclude true understanding amongst people.


visitants book cover art work image




VISITANTS includes, but is not limited to, the accounts of events given by Mr MacDonnell, a planter of Kailuana Island; Saliba a domestic in Mr MacDonnell’s household; Mr Dalwood, a cadet patrol officer; Osana a Government interpreter; and Benoni a tribal man and heir to chief Dipapa of Kailuana. Their accounts are interwoven to give a multilayered portrait of Patrol Officer Cawdor and the many humiliations and losses he experiences in the year leading up to his death.

Stow has intentionally not included footnotes or a glossary in the text to assist with the indigenous accounts. This means the reader initially flounders, like the novice cadet Patrol Officer Dalwood, to understand the island society and the people within it. This device effectively highlights the different perceptions of the characters, their limited understanding of events, and the ways in which cross-cultural misunderstandings and misinterpretations occur.

The central character, Alistair Cawdor, is further revealed to the reader through his diary excerpts. Cawdor is a perceptive man, older in spirit than his twenty seven years. He is sick, sick to the bone, after stopping his antimalarial medication. Mechanically going about his job as he ruminates about the existential history of the islands from their genesis from a storm of lava from the sea, shaped by the elements; their colonisation first by birds, seeds, floating fruit and uprooted trees, followed by the first peoples in canoes, hunting and gathering. And later the sailors, traders, missionaries, Government Officers, and settlers with wives, more food plants and livestock. Plants, animals, black men, and white men are all thus positioned as colonists of the Kailuana Island.


Stow studied anthropology at Sydney University and this influences the ways in which he positions his characters in the VISITANTS. Anthropologically, a visitant is defined as any person that lies outside of society whether separated by colour, belief or temperament. Cawdor chews betel nut, trades tobacco and becomes fluent in the Kiriwina language only to cynically realise that the natives predominantly talk of just sex and yams.

Cawdor realises that despite his affinity with the natives, integration is never an option, for he is forever separated from them by the colour of his skin. His beliefs and temperament isolate him just as surely from the white community who believe he has “gone troppo.” Abandoned by his wife, who leaves with the Government Medical Officer, Cawdor retreats disillusioned into the bottle, slowly becoming more and more melancholy. The subsequent deaths of his father and a friend, along with the loss of his position leads irrevocably to loneliness, depression and despair.


The Suburbs of Hell Author image



Stow is an exceptional writer, truly gifted at capturing the natural environment as well as the essential physical and psychological characteristics of his characters. What makes his work memorable however is his examination of human connections. For Stow, it seems that individual human lives are dwarfed by the inevitable evolution of landscape, community and species. Nevertheless his characters seek to be understood, or to understand others, as they move between being a visitant, or being subject to visitants. This is important because Stow seems to believe that underneath all the differences people have, humans share a need for connection, acceptance and true affection. Cawdor’s demise in the VISITANTS can then be seen to be the inevitable consequence of the failure of both the white and the indigenous communities around him to truly understand, love and accept him.

Despite many literary accolades, Stow’s life was marred by loneliness, depression, hazardous alcohol use and a suicide attempt. He died of a pulmonary embolism in the context of liver cancer aged seventy four. Stow was not a prolific writer, but his works are insightful, multifaceted and nuanced. The VISITANTS along with several of his other novels are deservedly Text Classics and should be read by anyone with an interest in Australian literature, colonial history or existentialism. VISITANTS is not an easy novel to read but Stow’s prose is beautiful and the themes in the novel are worth pondering.


4 Pops



Deborah is a lifelong lover of books, food, TV and film with a penchant for schlock horror, superheroes, science , black comedy and Asian martial arts stars. She would prefer to skydive than couch surf and is a fan of zombie walks. She can be found plugged into podcasts on long walks with her dog.

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor/publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.