Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Randolph Stow, Setting

‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 408 pages; 2008.

I loved Randolph Stow‘s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea so much I read it twice. First, in March, then again last week. And on both occasions I found myself falling in love with the story and wishing it would never end. I’m sure I could read it a third time (a fourth time, a fifth time… you get the idea) and not grow sick of it. It’s one of those beautiful stories that’s easy-to-read but if you dig a little deeper you’ll unravel layers of meaning.

Essentially the book, which was first written in 1965, is a coming-of-age story. It is set in Geraldton, Western Australia, where the author, who now lives in England, was born. Although my Penguin Modern Classics edition claims it is “not a self portrait” there’s no mistaking The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea‘s semi-autobiographical roots. It has a truly authentic feel for the time and the place, and it’s easy to find yourself entirely immersed in this world, smelling the eucalyptus wafting on the breeze and feeling the hot sand of the beach between your toes.

It’s a beautiful, somewhat nostalgic look at what it was like to grow up in one of the most remote areas on the planet, sandwiched between the desert and the Indian ocean, at a time when the Second World War was raging in Europe, and the Japanese were getting closer and closer to invading Australian soil. When the story opens in 1941 the Japanese have yet to bomb Darwin (that happens in February 1942) but the threat feels very real.

Young Rob Coram is just six years old and his life revolves around school, playing at the beach and avoiding his younger sister, Nan. His father, a quiet, solitary man, is stationed at the local garrison and plays little part in his life, and even less so when the family is evacuated to the rural hinterlands. It is here that we are introduced to Rob’s favourite cousin, Rick, who at 20 years old has given up his law studies to join the Army. Rob is devastated.

The book follows both their lives over the next eight years and is divided into two parts: “Rick Away 1941-1945” and “Rick Home 1945-1949”.

It’s the second part which is probably more moving of the two, because Rick’s time as a prisoner of war in Mandalay has scarred him psychologically and he finds it difficult to readjust to normal life. When Rob hears someone describe his beloved cousin as “immature” he adds it to a catalogue of offences in which “everything was wrong with Rick” :

Rick was immature.
He was lazy.
He was a narcissist.
He used dirty language. […]
He talked like Hitler about the Bomb.
He fainted.
He cried in his sleep, and when he had got drunk at Andarra on New Year’s Eve.
He had stayed at the very bottom of the Amy.
He had given up his campaign ribbons to a kid in the street as soon as he got them.
He had not given his campaign ribbons to Rob.

The prose style is simple and perfectly encapsulates the mindset of the boy. It’s incredibly poetic in places, not surprising given Stow’s career (he’s had much poetry published), and his beautiful descriptions of the landscape and the changing seasons, are reminiscent of Irish writer John McGahern:

The dark grey berry-bushes on the vacant land grew green and soft-looking, and put out small, mauve-tinged flowers. Then spring came, loud with bees, and the red berries formed, and in many yards were yellow flowering cassias. When the petals fell, the flowers turned into writhing green snakes full of seeds. The peppertrees bloomed. At Sandalwood the olives drizzled continually, the little green-white flowers and unformed fruit whispering down. In the early mornings the harbour was polished like a blue mirror.

The merry-go-round is a recurring motif, symbolising the unity of the family and the circle of life, two themes the book revolves around (yes, pun intended). Indeed, the beauty of the story is following Rob’s transformation from the naive young boy who thinks the mast of a wrecked ship out at sea is a merry-go-round despite his mother’s claims to the contrary. (It’s only when he manages to swim out to the wreck with a friend as a teenage boy that you, the reader, realise he’s grown up and the emotional impact of this, at least for me, cannot be underestimated.)

The story deals with other themes in varying degrees, including what it is to be Australian and whether it is possible to outgrow your country; the differences between a city and rural upbringing; isolation and belonging; boyhood and adulthood; family and loneliness; war and peace.

It’s not a perfect novel (there are occasional clunky “bits” and some of the ideas and attitudes presented, especially towards aboriginals and the Japanese, are dated and offensive), but it’s a highly readable, entertaining, often funny and incredibly moving story. I’m grateful to Penguin for bringing it back into print because this is the kind of book that deserves a wider audience. I can only hope that they might do the same to Stow’s remaining back catalogue.

17 thoughts on “‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow”

  1. Great review and I can hardly wait until summmer 2011 here in Australia when along with my bookgroup we shall be reading this novel. Sweltering conditions here today and I have been flat out under the ceiling fan reading another of your favourite authors Jennifer Johnston and ‘Fools Sanctuary’ which is a great read. Now off to see if you have blogged this one…….


  2. This would make a brilliant book group read — lots to talk about if you dig deep. Funny that you are sweltering: it’s all ice and snow around here! Not read Fool’s Sanctuary, but I expect it’s very good!


  3. He’s not quite as polished, or as slow, as McGahern but when it comes to depicting the passing of time, via the seasons, and describing the landscape there are similarities. Hope you enjoy the book if you get around to reading it.


  4. I’ve been meaning to pick this up. You’ll be pleased to know that Aus. Penguin has published this title in their latest cheap orange paperback editions. Much more accessible to the masses.


  5. Yes, I was going to say what Mae has said. I bought it for someone but when I went to buy it for myself it was gone – I thought it looked great and when I saw your listing of it in your top books for the year I thought that I really must get it. Reading it twice is a real commendation. I will hie me thither to bookshops in the next few days and try to track it down. Rainy Xmas day here but mild and lovely.


  6. I picked this up at a second-hand store in June along with an armful of others, and saved it for my Christmas break. I am so glad I did. I am from Perth and I know Geraldton very well, and it filled me with such joy to recognise my childhood also. This book is so beautiful, it will stay with me for a very long time.


  7. just read this book and what seduced me most was the clear and evocative writing of place and character. he captured perfectly the the sense of wonder and adoration in the child’s relationship with its environment and immediate relationships. yet despite the fact it was beautifully written ii can’t say i found it to have a very strong narrative drive and at times i really did labour with it. and the close observation and descriptions of the nuances of interpersonal relationships, his descriptions of the Australian landscape were in stark contrast to the rather heavy handed use of metaphor. the merry-go-round symbolism was rather laboured and forced. but what i DID enjoy about this book was that it definitely made me think about ideas, history, social context, even if i got a bit frustrated at times.


  8. I just found this review of a new book (referred to here from Mad Bibliophile), and since I am on a kick of reading books from all over, this one sounds great. I have just ordered it on Inter-library Loan since my local library didn’t have it, so looking forward to it. Thanks a bunch.


  9. What a wonderful, wonderful book. I have just spent the last four days completely consumed by this novel, which I would never have heard of had I not looked through your old reviews during Australian Literature Month, Kim. Without doubt one of my reads of the year, the writing is just so fresh and funny and moving. Loved it.


  10. Hi David, so pleased you enjoyed this one. Its a brilliant read, isnt it? I loved it so much I read it twice in the same year! He was an extraordinary writer, garnering all kinds of critical acclaim for a succession of books all written in his 20s. He then kind of petered out and emigrated to the UK, where he stayed firmly out of the spotlight. He died a couple of years ago but sadly this didnt result in a revival of interest in his books, most of which are out of print. I note that you can order them direct from the Queensland University Press website. Ive got a couple of them on my shelves, waiting to be read, which I picked up by chance in Melbourne about 5 years ago.
    Can I also recommend Darcy Nilands The Shiralee next?


  11. I’m definitely going to try ‘The Shiralee’ and perhaps also Ruth Park’s ‘The Harp in the South’. It’s amazing that ‘The Merry-go-Round in the Sea’ isn’t better known outside Australia – it definitely deserves the Modern Classic tag that Penguin have given it.


  12. I agree it’s a great book. So glad I finally read it! Enjoyed your review. His evocation of childhood, and of relationships (family and children), is a delight to read. So true.


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