To the Islands by Randolph Stow
Stow published this blindingly brilliant novel when he was 23 in 1958. It remains fresh to this day. My illustration was painted in oil on Arches paper: the originals have that medium's gorgeous depth of colour. This is part of a reissue of five Stow novels — the cover illustrations have been conceived in series style.
The Suburbs of Hell by Randolph Stow
In her deeply considered Afterword Michele de Kretser writes, "What transfixes in The Suburbs of Hell is Stow’s grafting of the visionary onto the calcified form of the whodunnit. That both the detective and the mystic seek the truth behind appearances seems self-evident only when it’s pointed out." The book is set in Tornwich, a fictionalised Harwich in Essex where Stow lived for the last 30 years of his life. There is a lighthouse in the middle of the town and also in the book. It seemed to me a lighthouse sweeping its spotlight down into the neighbouring houses served very well as an image of this mist-swept, coastal genre-bending whodunnit.
Tourmaline by Randolph Stow
Way out West Australia. A small town, Tourmaline, is suffering from prolonged drouth. An unexpected visitor arrives weak and ill but emerges as someone the locals begin to view as a messiah. This "complex spiritual parable and an enduring apocalyptic vision" is being made into a film by Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward. The cover depicts a church building, perhaps radiating waves of bell ringing.
The Girl Green as Elderflower by Randolph Stow
A set of strange, charming (as in sly, unreliable fairy charm) and uneasy tales set in Suffolk, where Stow was living. There are folktales of the region but rewoven into the present day of the protagonist who is recuperating from a tropical illness. One of the vivid tales involves a merman.
Visitants by Randolph Stow
My favourite of the five novels here, the most exotic in atmosphere and the most radical in structure. Set on a New Guinea island in 1959 around the suicide of an Australian field officer. Five witnesses tell their versions to a government enquiry to unravel the mystery. "But what of the other visitants, like the unidentified flying object and the cargo cult it has inspired on the island?" An amazing narrative, and an exciting exploration of colonialism. The cover image conflates the cargo cult of the plane (there is a superbly spooky scene in a hall of carved wooden aircraft) with the suggestion of a ritual mask, embedded with cowrie shells for eyes.
In the Memorial Room by Janet frame
A black comedy by the author of An Angel at My Table: Harry Gill takes up a writer's fellowship, a residency in sunny Mentone, France, at a "memorial room" dedicated to a famous poet, Margaret Rose Hurndell. A very sly and funny social satire of the writing set, writer wannabes and the cult of the dead author. Frame herself was a Katherine Mansfield Fellow in the South of France. The cover image comes from Harry's anxiety that he is beginning to lose his sight. It gets much more ironic than that.
The Chantic Bird by David Ireland
David Ireland's debut in 1966 is the confession of a teenage anarchist. Wilfully homeless, he is contemptuous of society, but has a soft spot for his siblings and Bee, the girl who looks after them. Geordie Williamson titles his Introduction "Australian Psycho" which is both accurate and funny. He writes, 'it remains one of the most astonishing debuts in Australian literature. No document of its time gives so distinct a sense of literary modernism adapted to local conditions.' The nameless protagonist has a hangout at Taronga Zoo, which may be how I got the idea of cobbling together antique prints of birds. The angry red bird is an invention. I wanted to get a sense of the present as drawn in a line from the colonial past and its collision with modernity, as represented by Ireland's distinctive voice.
The Refuge by Kenneth Mackenzie
Wartime Sydney, a police reporter, a body in the harbour — of a beautiful young woman who had fled Nazi Europe. Paranoia, communism, spies, a call in the night. A murderer's confession. The cover is inspired by Surrealism; WWII was when many of the artists decamped from Europe. My design rationale for the Classics is that the cover is dominated or accented by a shade of yellow (the colour wrapping from the back cover to the spine). The only exceptions are when the covers are monochromatic black.
There are now a hundred Text Classics "designed to unearth some of the lost marvels of our literature, and to allow readers to rediscover wonderful books they have never forgotten. These books are milestones in the Australian experience."