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 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.