Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Battered Penguins III

I am already breaking my own rules with this one - Randolph Stow's The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. Yes, it is a Penguin with big lettering and a shiny cover, the kind of thing I said I wasn't interested in. In its defence, I think the first paperback edition was of the more muted variety and therefore the copy I have is only masquerading in a shiny cover. More importantly though, it is really good.

The novel is set in Western Australia during and just after the Second World War. It is mainly told from the point of view of Rob, a small boy, who idolises his older cousin Rick, (whose story the book also deals with, although he is only the secondary focus of the novel). While Rob stays at home, Rick joins the army, is sent to Malaya, where he is captured by the Japanese, and eventually returns home, altered permanently by his experiences.

In case anyone gets the wrong impression from that summary, I should point out that The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea is not an exciting action book about soldiers and war. It takes place almost entirely in rural Western Australia and really not a great deal happens. However, this does not mean for a moment that the book is boring. It isn't at all; it is extremely beautiful, psychologically accurate - here is the boy's reaction to his father, who he hasn't seen for years: 'The boy rather liked the look of his father, who was tall and had a face like the King. Watching him from a distance, he decided that his father was probably a nice man. But they kissed one another with great reserve, and had nothing to say' -  evocative and, not least, often very funny - 'Aunt Kay was always darning men's socks ... She went about the Maplestead clan soliciting men's socks to darn, and when she was not darning socks she was knitting socks, or picking grass-seeds out of socks, or asking for news of the sock situation in outlying parts of the family.' The novel is such a good piece of writing, in fact, that I plan to recommend it to everyone I meet - I may go even further and press it on strangers, my eyes glinting with evangelical fervour.

What makes the book so good is first and foremost the power of Stow's description of the world in which the boy lives. Stow is extraordinarily observant and manages to create a sense of space and time and heat and even smell. It is pointless to quote particular instances that demonstrate his skill - the entire book is imbued with a sense of Western Australia; we see it, we feel it, we breathe it, we are there. And there with us is the boy, Rob. We watch him growing up and discovering life and the world in a time of war.

The main concern of the book - and of the boy who is its central character - is time. The boy first becomes aware of time at a very young age: 'He counted up to sixty and thought: That is a minute. Then he thought: It will never be that minute again. It will never be today again. Never. He would not, in all his life, make another discovery so shattering. He thought now: I am six years and two weeks old. I will never be that old again.' As his understanding of time increases, the idea of it is harnessed to the image of the merry-go-round that we first encounter in the title: 'The boy's life had no progression, his days led nowhere. He woke in the morning in his room, and at night he slept: the wheel turning full circle, the merry-go-round of his life revolving ... The boy's life had no progression, his days led nowhere. It was summer, and he did not go to school. His life was the sea, the merry-go-round and the swings.' Later, contemplating an ancient handprint made by an Aboriginal child on a rock, the boy gets a glimpse of time on an even larger scale: 'Time and change had removed this child from his country, and his world was not one world, but had in it camps of the dispossessed.'

The handprint on the rock does not only raise questions about time and the relationship between the boy's people, incomers, and the original dwellers of the land. It also introduces the theme of Australia itself, 'sandy, makeshift, innocent'. As he grows, the boy builds 'in his mind a vision of Australia, brave and sad, which was both what soldiers went away to die for and the mood in which they died. Deep inside him he yearned towards Australia: but he did not expect ever to go there.'

It is through language, another preoccupation of the novel, that the boy gains this sweetly absurd understanding of Australia, and language gets its grip on him at an early age: 'Words possessed his mind, a meaningless magic.' Although he quickly grasps that language can be used to play tricks - "Above one of the windows opening on the drive at Sandalwood were characters scratched in the plaster. 'What's that, Aunt Mary?' asked the boy, pointing. ... 'That's Chinese writing.' 'Who wrote it?' 'The Chinamen who built the house.' ...'What does it mean?' 'We hope it means: 'Good luck to this house' ...he ...laughed 'Funny if it means: "Mr Maplestead is mad,' he said' - he is not immune to it. Via the poems his mother reads to him at night: '...poems about Australia, about sad farewells at the slip-rail and death in the far dry distance, where the pelican builds its nest ... Australia formed itself for the boy: bare, melancholy, littered with gallant bones.' Soon he discovers that there are others who use different words to build different myths of their country. When Rick gives the boy his version of their country - 'I reckon you could define Australia as an Anglo-Celtic vacuum in the South Seas', the boy protests, 'Gee, you're rude about Australia,' to which Rick replies, 'I don't mean it. It was a good country to be a child in. It's a childish country.'

But Australia and what it means is not something that can be nailed down and settled once and for all - things change, points of view alter and, as Rick says, 'Families and countries are biological accidents.'  Ultimately, the boy realises, time is the one overarching force in life - 'Time was like a river in flood' - and, within that flood, existence is not one thing; each of us has our own separate reality: 'The world the boy had believed in did not, after all, exist. The world and the clan and Australia had been a myth of his mind and he had been, all the time, an individual.'

Rick leaves and the boy is left behind. Once again the merry-go-round motif returns, bringing the book full circle: 'Over Rick's head a rusty windmill whirled and whirled. He thought of a windmill that had become a merry-go-round in a back yard, a merry-go-round that had been a substitute for another, now ruined merry-go-round, which had been itself a crude promise of another merry-go-round most perilously rooted in the sea.'

The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea is a wonderful novel. Stow was a very great writer. Why he is not praised in Australia as often and as loudly as some of his contemporaries have been, I do not know - perhaps we never forgave him for choosing to live away from home.


  1. Thank you for reminding me of a wonderful writer. I was sorry to learn of his death last year. I have only read Visitants, The Suburbs of Hell, and The Girl Green as Elderflower - they are all very different, and they all left a very strong impression on me.

    I have wondered why he wrote nothing (at least to my knowledge) after The Suburbs of Hell, which was published in 1984. But we can be grateful for what he did accomplish. You have encouraged me to revisit his work. Thank you.

  2. Hello, Stephen. I am looking forward to reading more by him. I have Tourmaline and To the Islands but, as yet, not the ones you mention. I'm also going to look for a good biography of Stow - I'm intrigued to know more about him, partly because he did not publicise himself. Many modern writers could take a leaf from his book on that front.