Childhood, that foreign land. We look back in happiness, sorrow, regret, disillusionment but always with the sense of a different, bygone time, never to come again. Do we remember our innate knowingness, our sixth sense for the sadness of adults? Probably not, at least not all the time, for don’t we adult selves often believe we have hidden our current troubles from our children?
The wonderful commonality of all childhoods, good or bad, is the elasticity of time. Never metered in hours, time was a function of the excitement of the game, the absorption of the task, the charisma of one’s playmates.
Time is everything to The Merry Go Round in the Sea. Rob Coram is growing up in Geraldton, Western Australia, during World War II. He’s six at the beginning of the narrative and thirteen when we leave him. He’s traversed the boundaries of childhood, and suffers pimples and wet dreams and the knowledge that he can never go back to that glorious land that existed before puberty. Time has been a thorn in his side since he was very young. In the first few pages Stow writes of Rob:
He was thinking of time and change, of how, one morning when he must have been quite small, he had discovered time, lying in the grass with his eyes closed against the sun. He was counting to himself. 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.
The treachery of time is threaded throughout the novel, and close to its end we see Rob at thirteen, dreaming of girls, beginning to fall under the confusing spell of sex and desire, those mysterious concepts that he’d previously found ridiculous and repugnant:
He hardly knew what was happening to him. There was no reason, no development in his now perpetual unhappiness . . . On the salty planks of the Dolphins, in the middle of the sea, he lay sunbaking, listening to the talk of the older boys. They made jokes at him that he thought at first he did not understand, and then realised that he did understand, and blushed, but felt relieved at the same time that he was not the only person to know such things. His life was shamed; and standing on the springboards of the Dolphins he plunged into the clean sea, skimming the sand and weed of the sea-floor, wanting to stay down there, wondering what it was like to drown among the trailing ropes of watery light.
Time’s expressed, too, in the predictable circularity of seasons, a concept all the more nostalgic today given the modern uncertainties wrought by climate change:
Lying on the clover-sown lawn in the winter sun, or in a hammock under the cool peppertrees in the summer, the boy listened to the sounds of the town’s seasons.
Always the sea, roaring or praying. Always, somewhere, a wind among leaves, a clank of windmills. Always, somewhere, a rooster crowing, someone hammering, the clop of the baker’s horse in the street, a child calling, the whang of the circular saw in the distant woodyard, the far hoot of a lazy train.
. . . In winter, before rain, when the wind came from the north . . . the banging and the shouts of men working on the wharf were clear and sharp. Mudlarks hopped on the lawns, scratching the air with their calls like diamonds on glass. After rain the gutters gurgled, the tanks gurgled as the fresh water drained into them. Someone would be chopping wood; someone would be calling, playing football in a back street. In the warm Sunday afternoons of winter the siren wailed on the football field, marking the quarters.
Stow creates a reliable, repetitive past – someone would be chopping wood, someone would be calling – thus feeding our nostalgia, piquing our longing for the certainty of this circumscribed, knowable, lost world.
And time also means war, and waiting for the war to end so that Rick can come home.
The novel is divided into two sections, Rick Away 1941-1945 and Rick Home 1945-1949. These part titles hint at the main preoccupations of this novel: the passing of time and the war experience of Rob’s adored second cousin, Rick Maplestead. A tall, handsome, laconic young man in the archetypal Australian hero mould, Rick is for half the novel away in Malaya. While Rob imagines him fighting the Japanese and too lazy to write letters home, the reader knows that Rick is a POW.
There are two wars in the novel. There’s the war of those who’ve stayed behind, played out in the newspapers and dinner time conversation, and in the imagination of kids in the schoolyard. Rob and his mates practise water torture on each other, and around the district the foreigners leave or are interned: Tony Boldoni who used to cut the boy’s hair, in the dim shop hung with sepia racehorses, had been interned for speaking too well of Italy. This war is distant, theoretical, somewhat confusing. Even victory seems remote:
. . .and one evening, in the street, a voice called: ‘Hey youse kids. They reckon Hitler’s dead.’
And one day bells rang, with cheering and crying and singing. The bell in the schoolyard started tolling, then from farther and farther away the other bells chimed in . . . In the town, in all towns, the grown-ups celebrated wildly, like big kids . . . The bells chimed with the static-riven bells of London. It was victory in Europe; in faraway, hardly believable Europe, from which emanated the static-riven voices of Mr Churchill and the King.
The other war belongs to Rick and his best mate, Hugh Mackay, who meet in Malaya on the day of Rick’s twenty-first birthday. Their relationship is brilliantly drawn by Stow. Back in Australia, their conversations, full of derogatory banter, illuminate the horrors of their war experience without the need for graphic description. Rick, more damaged than Hugh appears to be, functions best when Hugh is with him. Rob notices Rick’s changed expression, his empty eyes. Sleeping in Rick’s room, he witnesses the nightmares, the crying, the cigarettes Rick smokes, one after another, during the night. Rick’s mood swings frighten and trouble him. He loves Rick and wishes him whole.
The extended family are supportive, yet not entirely pleased with how Rick has behaved since he returned from Malaya. Rob muses on Rick’s failings soon after his return, and we see through his list – a list gleaned both from the talk of the adults around him and his own grievances – the yawning gulf of understanding between those who go to war and those who stay behind:
Rick was immature.
He was lazy.
He was a narcissist.
He used dirty language.
He was not a gentleman to Jane Wexford, and had lost his temper when arguing with her about the Bomb.
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 Army.
He had given his campaign ribbons, & c., to a kid in the street as soon as he got them.
He had not given his campaign ribbons, & c., to Rob.
He looked bored and miserable when he was with people Rob liked.
He refused to be a farmer.
It seems that only Rob and the reader understand the extent of Rick’s suffering. The other adults, loving as they are, have neither the observational powers nor the language to know or empathise.
The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea succeeds as the perfect novel of childhood because Stow understands that the essence of childhood is captured in sensual experience. Rob’s world is richly conveyed through all five senses: hot tar from the road sticking to bare feet (but which eight-year old kid from Geraldton would be wussy enough to wear shoes?), the unbearable ache of a date palm thorn in a finger (which leads Rob and his friends to ponder Japanese torture methods) the thwack of tennis balls on a summer’s evening, the smell of a horse’s stall, the taste of warm ripe figs picked straight from the Moreton Bay fig that overhangs the Maplestead house. And always the sea and the land, their changing colours and textures, their shifting shapes. And the child’s perspective is threaded through the landscape, so that gumtrees crippled and stooped by the southerly, bowing northward and trailing their leaves on the ground remind Rob of his grandmother and Aunt Kay washing their long hair over a basin. Grass trees instil something close to fear: Their spears thrust up from the rough-smelling scrub . . . their green hair hung straight from the crown . . . they looked as if they might move.
This is a tale of weather and landscape and history, seen through a child’s eyes. It’s also a novel of identity, as all novels of childhood must be. What is it to be Australian? This is the question this novel repeatedly asks. Rob has a keen interest in family history, and through the exploits of his ancestors he constructs a history of the country in which he lives. His Scottish forebears – Jacobites and free settlers, not convicts, as Grandmother Maplestead is keen to explain – came to Western Australia to farm. They fought and killed aborigines, a sorry history that’s brushed over by Rob’s family. (Stow was himself very interested in indigenous people and culture, but The Merry Go Round in the Sea adopts the stance of Western Australian white society of the time, as it must, given that Stow is trying to recreate the attitudes of the period.) Rob fashions an idea of Australia but it is a foreign place:
Gradually Australia formed itself for the boy: bare, melancholy, littered with gallant bones. Its border with his world was somewhere near his Uncle Paul’s farm, in the dry red country. Once past the boundary fence, the bones would start. He built 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.
Rob imagines Australia as existing only in its red dry heart, whereas the land he knows is more forgiving: Paddocks stretched out to the far hills, bright with pasture, dark with wheat, silvery with young lupins in the wind. In the winter sun the hills were golden-green and blue-dark, and the air smelled of fresh pasture and the warm oils in the leaves of gum and wattle, a rough sweetness. His world was in summer a spare, bare, clean-smelling country; and in winter, a soft green fire.
And the sea, the sea: everywhere in this beautiful novel, the sea sings to us. Rob’s childhood is mapped out along the Geraldton shore; first as a little boy looking out to sea and seeing what he believes to be a merry-go-round out in the water. He later learns it’s a partially sunk barge. His distant father, with a face like the King, takes him for walks on the beach, and it’s here that he likes his father the most. He would cling to his father’s freckled back and his father would swim away, out into the deep water, where it was dark blue instead of pale green. . . He was in love with the sea and more than anything wanted to swim.
As he grows older he does learn to swim and Stow’s descriptions of summer afternoons spent on the beach with his schoolmates are the stuff that all distinctly Australian novels are made of. To Rob the sea is poetic, dazzling, cleansing, never treacherous. It’s only when he tries to swim in a flooded river that he almost drowns in the brown swirling water.
Childhood means endless days of freedom, and a childhood spent during the war meant even more, especially when one’s family were evacuated to family farms, like the Corams were. As the novel closes, Rob, now an adolescent, is soon to go to boarding school, where Rick went too:
‘To Guildford,’ the boy said. ‘In February.’
‘Ah well, you should like that,’ Rick said. ‘I did.’
‘Is it like the schools in the English boys’ books?’
‘Not really,’ Rick said. ‘It’s more like Changi. I enjoyed it.’
The end of Rob’s childhood coincides with Rick’s departure for Europe. In the final moving scene his beloved Rick betrays him, just as time has done:
‘Look kid,’ Rick said, ‘I’ve outgrown you. I don’t want a family, I don’t want a country. Families and countries are biological accidents. I’ve grown up and I’m on my own.’
‘Why the boy asked,’ begging urgently to know. ‘What’s wrong with us?’
‘I can’t stand,’ Rick said, ‘this—ah, this arrogant mediocrity . . . and the unspeakable bloody boredom of belonging to a country that keeps up a sort of chorus: Relax, mate, relax, don’t make the pace too hot. Relax, you bastard, before you get clobbered.’
Perhaps Stow is saying something here about the reasons he himself left Australia.
I’ve quoted extensively from this novel because it’s hard to resist. The language is poetic, moving, magnificent. It’s a wonderful Australian novel, a coming of age narrative that speaks across generations about country, family and identity. I urge you to read it.