Western Australian Writing Review: The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea

The Merry-Go-Round In the Sea by Randolph Stow
ISBN 9780143180074
Published by Penguin Classics, 2008 (First published 1965)

One of the things that I love about books like this one is the quality of the sweeping family saga.  Drawing on the nature of memory, shared and individual, the narrative follows a line throughout not just a significant event but a string of them.  The reader is invited to watch the character grow and respond to a number of events and share in the special significance of each one.

Image from Goodreads

At the beginning of this novel, Rob Coram is eight.  Geraldton is his whole world and appears to be made up of a series of rural properties, each one belonging to a member of his family.  He has many aunt and uncles, and a multitude of cousins- they are a link to a family history which, for Rob, has taken on an almost fairy tale like essence. But no one is more at the centre of Rob's attention than his cousin Rick (who is actually something like his mother's second cousin I think but I have never been very good at working these things out).  Rick is the golden boy, the Australian legend.  He is handsome, athletic and witty.  And then he goes to war.

Life goes on without Rick, as much as Rob believed that it wouldn't.  He learns to gallop on a horse, without Rick teaching him like he promised that he would.  He goes to school and makes friends.  He becomes the older cousin to younger ones who appear to be coming out of nowhere.  But he never gives up missing Rick.  At first, no one will tell him where Rick is, and then he discovers that Rick is a prisoner of the Japanese, working on the Thai-Burma railway.  Interspersed, we are given scenes of Rick's heartbreaking struggle, his illness and his anguish, to contrast with Rob's.

In the second part of the novel, Rick comes home, and life goes on.  Rob is angered by the adult's criticism of Rick, who has become apathetic and withdrawn.  He refuses to see that the old Rick has never come back.  And both of them must learn to live in a world which has changed forever.

Randolph Stow's writing is simple yet poetic.  He describes things in such a stripped back manner that you would think you'd never looked at them properly in the first place.  The towns and the Maplestead's have a life of their own in front of you as you read.  Some of the lesser character's like Jane and Mr. Coram aren't as well developed, but as you read, you discover that this is because (try as they might), Rick and Rob can never truly understand these people.  At times, things can seem confusing- for example when it is said that Joy is expecting a 7 months baby in 6 months, but I put this down to euphemisms and slang that add to the overall atmosphere, despite no longer being in use.  (By the way, I assume that meant that their baby was conceived before they were married?)

The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea is a novel which makes me yearn for a different time and a place.

I give it four out of five sunken ships.

And thanks to Eden for lending this to me.  :)