This novel of Western Australia first was published 20 years ago and it says much, not only for its own distinction as a young man's novel but also for the comparative maturity of Australian literature, that it reads today as compellingly as many more recent books. But 20 years ago an Australian novelist scarcely could dream of publication in the United States. Today, after the critical breakthrough achieved here by Patrick White and Thomas Keneally, and the commercial success of Colleen McCullough and a handful of Australian films, a novel as original as "Tourmaline" may at last find the American readers it deserves.

The image of Australia imparted by these forerunners is of a place physically harsh, yet beautiful, somewhat exotic, even mysterious in nature, where the land itself still shapes the lives of the people. Remote as this image may be from the way ordinary Australians in their suburbs and small towns see themselves--except perhaps in this year of drought and fires--it is appropriate enough with respect to "Tourmaline," which happens to be a harsh, exotic and mysterious novel, dominated by its setting.

Yet Randolph Stow seems to have intended to create not so much a physical landscape as a landscape of the mind, using the desolation of the drought-stricken waste surrounding and engulfing the town of Tourmaline as the analogue of a spiritual condition. "We've got to the bare bones of the country," observes one of the characters, "and I reckon we're getting to the bones of ourselves."

But the success of "Tourmaline" as a kind of spiritual allegory depends on the independent vitality of its story and characters and its rendering of the actual landscape. Fortunately, all are strong enough to offset the heavy-handedness with which Stow occasionally takes up his spiritual "themes."

The action of the novel is imagined as taking place in the future, date unspecified, but at a time when drought gradually has desiccated the land. Tourmaline is a former gold-mining town, almost bereft of inhabitants, but "not a ghost town," as the narrator informs us in the beginning. "It simply lies in a coma. This may never end." The narrator is an old man, the only inhabitant old enough to remember rain, who thinks of himself variously as the "law," the "conscience" and the "memory" of Tourmaline; the others treat him as an object of pity.

Ominously, children no longer are born in Tourmaline. The whites in the town and the natives in the camp are suspended in a state of physical and spiritual torpor. Some of them find it "suffocating," but all seem to share the narrator's sense of "terrible danger" in the world beyond their horizons.

Into this stricken place comes a strange figure: Michael Random, a water-diviner, apparently without ties or aspirations, except for those he forms in Tourmaline. From the start, the aged narrator feels that Michael may be "a diviner of less tangible things than water" and indeed it is soon clear that his self-imposed mission is prophetic and evangelistic, if somewhat less than orthodox.

There is a strain of imagery throughout that strongly suggests a Christ-figure; but at the same time, there is an unsettling aura of fanaticism, even evil, surrounding Michael, which confuses the actual nature of Tourmaline's "salvation" in a most interesting way. "Ah, but how difficult it is to recreate this young man, who to everyone meant something, and to no two people the same," says the narrator. Above all, this diviner awakens a thirst, not just for water, but for the fruitfulness of the spirit that water traditionally symbolizes. The question is, whether the agent of such genuine awakening can be as "unsound" and deluded as Michael recurrently is seen to be.

Despite this depth of seriousness, the novel is rarely cerebral and is surprisingly stirring. For one thing, "Tourmaline" provides a setting of brilliant color and grand perspectives, reminiscent in many ways of some Australian landscape painting. I find myself thinking of the book now first in terms of its characteristic colors, gray-green, ocher, fire-red and copper-sulfate blue, and its "enormous and desolate landscapes . . . opened by the voice of a lone crow." Few other Australian novels are as visually impressive as "Tourmaline."

Furthermore, considering their dire condition, the townspeople are never either so comatose or so bewitched as to have lost all humor and shrewdness. Even their names imply a certain spiritedness: Kestrel, Rock, Spring, Speed, Pete Macaroni, Bull the Dill and, among the natives, Gentle Jesus Yandana and Gloria and Agnes Day (named as a compliment to Jesus). These people generally are blunt and prickly and various enough to flesh out the novel's "bare bones" and override its moments of self-consciousness.

The questions "Tourmaline" raises are profound, its exploration of them subtle, its setting memorable and its style original, poetic and, on the whole, fastidious: all in all, a sufficient recommendation for any novel.