I first discovered Randolph Stow (1935-2010) just last year when I read To The Islands, so I was delighted when the ANZ LitLovers group selected Merry-go-round in the Sea for our 2011 schedule. It’s a more accessible book than its predecessor, and has often been included on Year 12 reading lists because it’s a coming-of-age story that is rich in the kind of themes that preoccupy young people. But it is more than the usual novella-length YA novel; it is a full-length beautifully crafted work of literature that has plenty to engage a widely read adult as well.
Rob Coram is six years old and living an idyllic childhood when his favourite cousin Rick sets out for war in 1941. The family lives in Geraldton in Western Australia, 424 kilometres north of Perth, itself the most isolated city in the world, and perhaps more remote from the war than anywhere else on earth. Yet even in this distant outpost, war changes lives.
Stow was born in Geraldton in 1935 and educated at Geraldton Primary School. When, in 1942, the Japanese bombed Broome (nearly 2000 km north of Geraldton) he was evacuated for a short period of time to family properties in the Geraldton hinterland. These experiences inform the novel which takes little Rob from town (Geraldton) to country (Sandalwood Homestead, and past that, Andarra). When the fear of invasion is at its height, there was even talk of fleeing eastward, well inland, to Bogoda Station at Mt Magnet, and bags are packed…
But for Rob, the idea of war is remote. Yes, the maid vanishes, there are air raid trenches in the tennis court, and his father goes away to man the garrison in Perth, but Rob – who doesn’t even realise that the place Australia is where he himself lives – is too young to understand:
The war was a curse, a mystery, an enchantment. Because of the war there were no more paper flowers. That was how he first knew the curse had fallen. Once there had been little paper seeds that he had dropped into a bowl of water, and slowly they had opened out and become flowers floating in the water. The flowers had come from Japan. Now there was a war, and there would never be paper flowers again. The people in Japan were suddenly wicked, far wickeder than the Germans, though once they had only been funny, like Chinamen. For days and days he had heard the name Pearl Harbour, which was the name of a place where people in Japan had done something very wicked. It must be a place like Geraldton. The sea he was looking at was called the Harbour. At a place like Geraldton the people in Japan had done something very wicked and nothing would ever be the same again. (p7-8)
The writing is memorably vivid: scents, flowers, prickles underfoot all seem so real, and the WA heat shimmers across the paddocks to bring the sense of place authentically alive.
This authentic voice of childhood is matched by nostalgic descriptions of a time and place long gone, and Stow’s story is an elegy for the kind of childhood freedom that speaks strongly to people of my generation. We were so lucky to be allowed to range far and wide without much parental interference! For Rob and his little friends, school closed if it was too hot, and the teachers took those who couldn’t go home to the pool. They were free to climb trees from which one might fall; free to dangle precariously from playground equipment and free to experience that frisson of danger as they hurtled around in space. The photo of the ‘kidsafe’ playground adjacent to my local library on the right says it all: not a child in sight, and on the last day of the school holidays too!
The symbol of the merry-go-round is more, however, than just a symbol of childhood fun. Like the quotation in Rob’s autograph book from John Donne’s A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,
Thy firmness makes my circle just/ And makes me end where I begun
where the point of the compass remains fixed while the pencil draws a circle, the merry-go-round represents the way Rick’s family is thought to stay still and unchanging while the world seems to move around it.
The merry-go-round of life revolved. In Asia there was war, and in Geraldton the profoundest peace’ (p352)
Rob, we know, will outgrow the merry-go-round to which he is so attached, but the unchanging peace of home that soldiers yearned for is not the same, and neither are they.
Nearly all of the story is written from Rob’s point-of-view and so it is a shock to the reader when without warning the text segues to show what is happening to Rick. The first is where they have been captured and the Japanese have committed an atrocity. It is their first intimation of how unpredictable and dangerous the Japanese are. The second scene is years into their captivity, one mate has just met his death and another is dying. A third scene is near the war’s end. The effect of this is that like Rob Coram, for at least half of the story the reader doesn’t know whether Rick has survived or not either. Rick’s family writes to him, but there is no reply. When the fear of invasion recedes and they return to town, Rob hears that the Italians have surrendered and he feels hope, but his mates are convinced that Rick is dead. This sense of not-knowing is very powerful.
The elegy is not just for childhood, it’s also for the man that Rick was and could have been, for Merry-go-round in the Sea is also an early recognition of the unseen suffering of returned POWs who, postwar, were not always treated with respect. By the time these men were repatriated, most of them looked well and healthy enough, and for one reason or another, they often felt that they could not talk about their experiences. Ignorance of what they had been through meant that they were accused sometimes of having ‘sat out the war’ and, (as slave labour on the Thai-Burma Railway) of ‘having been on the other team’; they felt they did not belong in the ANZAC marches for heroes. Not all of them were able to readjust to life at home easily.
Other issues tackled in the book include exposing the casual racism of white Australians, shown by the off-hand remarks that the Maplesteads and the Corams make about Aborigines. By letting these characters speak for themselves, Stow reveals them for what they were, and there are just enough references to the Aborigines to show just how thoroughly they had been dispossessed by these proudly fifth-generation families. Rob’s mother is furious that Rob sits next to an Aboriginal at school, but Rob finds this odd:
They were Australian. They were more Australian than Rob was, and he was fifth generation. And yet somehow they were not Australian. His world was not one world. (p116)
That there had been a vibrant Aboriginal country is shown by the visit to the Cave of Hands; that nobody expects anything of them is shown by the character of Barbara Johnson, who, dispossessed even of her Aboriginal name, is not expected to be either an athlete or a scholar despite her talents and hard work.
Stow also demolishes the myth of Australia as a classless society. ‘Certainly not!’ retorts his grandmother when Rob asks if there were any convicts in his family (p141) and class differences that didn’t matter on the Thai-Burma Railway matter a great deal when the POWs return. When Rob’s father returns from his duties at the garrison to resume his role as head of the family, he is aghast that his child has been allowed to develop an ‘Australian’ accent instead of the ‘Pommy’ one that Rob’s friends tease him about. More poignantly, a mateship forged in the jungles of Burma tears into an unbridgeable gulf because of differences in education, social class, and career prospects.
Notwithstanding these weighty issues, Merry-go-round in the Sea is a delight to read. The flippant dialogue of the adult males, tempered by Rob’s not-quite-complete understanding of what they are saying, is often very funny, and I liked the way the sentimental poetry of Rob’s childhood switched to popular songs and bawdy jingles of the 40s. The narrative drive is strong, and the dramatic tension that accompanies the final chapters makes the book hard to put down.
Author: Randolph Stow
Title: Merry-go-round in the Sea
Publisher: Penguin, 2008, first published 1965
Source: Personal copy.