Randolph Stow's surreal, nostalgic backward glance at childhood during war.
Merry-Go-Round in the Sea opens in 1941. Six-year-old Rob Coram lives in Geraldton, Western Australia, and spends his young days in the company of his aunts, cousins and other family members. It's quite an idyllic life, one at a far remove from all the political trouble brewing in Europe. Rob especially looks up to his older cousin, Rick, who enlists to go to war.
As the years progress, and the Second World War is fought with greater ferocity, Rob's extended family moves further away from the city and townships, finally to Andarra. When the war ends, Rob looks forward to seeing his cousin Rick again. He expects that life will simply pick up from where it has left off. But the centre of gravity has radically changed. Rick was held as a prisoner of war and saw things he cannot forget. He's a changed man and Rob's idealised cousin is now hollowed out, a broken man who can barely take an interest in his own life. Rob sees him disappearing before his very own eyes.
Australian poet and novelist Randolph Stow first published this now acclaimed classic in 1965. It's an incredibly moody, evocative portrait of Australia during the war years. While the novel's poetic style has a timeless quality, it also contains contemporary descriptions of First Australians and outdated attitudes towards women. The book is not in itself sexist or racist, yet faithfully records conversations that were. Stow highlights the irony of Australia's racism:
"It was funny about black ******. They were Australian. They were more Australian than Rob was, and he was fifth generation. And yet somehow they were not Australian."
There's not much plot to go by in all of this, simply page after page of dreamy, hazy descriptions and bland yet strangely surreal conversations between family members. The whole story – all four hundred pages of it – passes like a beautiful, disturbing dream. Stow's skill is such that it is all seamlessly woven together; it doesn't feel so much like a novel, more an hallucinatory experience.
An Australian classic not to be overlooked.
Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, by Randolph Stow. Published by Penguin. $12.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books