The nostalgia of place, the treachery of time: Randolph Stow’s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea

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 fainted.

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.

Ordinary Grief: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Ordinary Grief: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

(Picador, 2014)

Nora’s husband, Maurice, has died of cancer, and this novel charts her grief in the months and years following his death. It has a subterranean feel at times, as if the reader, like Nora, is struggling to raise her head above water. Ordinary things happen – life goes on, one might say – people try to help, but it’s as if all other life is distant, flimsy, immaterial. Nora’s separated by the experience of grief and nothing else matters anywhere as much as the absence of her husband. She’s separated even from her four children – Fiona, Aine, Donal and Conor – and they suffer too, doubly so, as both parents are lost to them. When Nora returns to work, as she must to make ends meet, her two sons come home from school to an empty house. Toibin lays this down for the reader gently and dispassionately, resurrecting memories of the cold, silent rooms of our own childhood, and when we read that Donal has been bullying his younger brother when they’re alone, we’re sure we’re witnessing the slow, inevitable unravelling of a family. (I’ll add here that Nora and her family don’t in fact unravel, and that the novel ends with a sense of change and anticipation.)

I can’t write more about Nora Webster without first acknowledging Gregory Day’s excellent review in the Sydney Review of Books. You can read it here:

Day’s piece is just what a book review should be: well-researched, contextualised and beautifully written, so that you turn to the book with a greater understanding of and appetite for the writer and his subject matter.

This novel is a repository of all things quotidian: a gas fire in a living room where the boys watch TV, beans on toast, the instruction manual for a new washing machine bought by Catherine, Nora’s wealthier sister. It’s Toibin’s privileging of the quotidian that gives this novel its quiet hypnotic power, its veracity. We live Nora’s struggle on a daily basis. Through Nora’s eyes, and hers alone, we see how other people deal with someone who’s grieving: the things they say that irritate or comfort, the way they look and behave as if the griever has become alien, in a different realm. Nora has in fact moved into a different realm, and no-one seems able to reach her, with the exception of Jim, Maurice’s brother and his wife, Margaret, who were there with Nora when Maurice died. Even Nora’s children are across the chasm, and here lies the real sadness of the novel.  Nora loves her children and hates to see them suffer but she operates within the conventions of her time and place – that repressive stoic Irish Catholicism that prevents her from honest conversation with everyone around her, most importantly her children. Toibin captures this repressive mood very well, and the reader flinches at what’s left unsaid and undone as Nora’s boys drift around her, unmoored in their own grief. Donal particularly suffers, perhaps because he’s older and more introverted than his brother, Conor. Donal develops a stammer that, while discussed out of his presence with his aunt Margaret, is left unaddressed or unremarked upon by his mother for a long time. The stammer stands as the outward symptom of Donal’s unhappiness and Nora, in Donal’s eyes at least, pays it no heed.

All this might tend to make the reader judge Nora harshly: she should be thinking of her children’s wellbeing more than her own, we could say. But Toibin elicits our sympathy instead. Nora is fallible – headstrong, proud, irritable, emotionally absent – yet she’s so well drawn, and her grief so large, so  convincing that we understand and forgive her, just as we might understand and forgive our own mother’s behaviour in the wake of our father’s death.

When it comes to protecting her young from the meddling of others, Nora becomes a tiger mother, passionate and all at once present, electrified. Education and intellect are prized in Nora’s family – they are a clever, studious lot – and when Conor is moved from the A-class to the B-class at school without explanation, Nora goes on the warpath, threatening the principal, the unlikeable Brother Herlihy, with a school gate picket and a ‘widow’s curse.’ The other teachers at the school, loyal to Maurice’s memory – he was a teacher there, too – and aware of Nora’s legendary iron will, stand up to Brother Herlihy, and soon Conor’s back in his old class. Pretending calm, even nonchalance when Conor tells her this news, Nora doesn’t disclose to him her part in his reversal of fortunes, even when he asks her directly. Emotion is again reined in, and words and deeds kept hidden.

As already mentioned, Nora and her family are faring better by the end of the narrative than when we first meet them. Toibin doesn’t sugar-coat, but the reader leaves Nora’s story with a sense of cautious optimism, as Nora kneels by her living room fire and feeds Maurice’s letters to her into the flames. Her sisters – with whom Nora has had many minor disagreements – have just left the house with Maurice’s clothes: Nora has at last let them go. She’s taken up singing, and has just been asked by her respected singing teacher to join a choir. Her love of music – both the act of singing as well as listening to classical recordings – has grown through the novel, and we read her quiet yet profound pleasure at being chosen for the Wexford choir as a symbol of recovery. The children, too, are moving on: the two girls into adulthood in Dublin, while Donal has moved to boarding school after, in a rare moment of intimacy, he tells Nora why he’s floundering at the school where Maurice taught:

He looked at her, and the look suggested a rawness that she had never seen in him before.

‘Has it been bad?’

‘The rooms are all the rooms he taught in. I sit in the classroom he came into every day.’

His tone was direct and hard; he did not stammer. She held him as he began to cry.

And they all l-look at me and f-feel sorry for me. And I c-can’t st-study. And I c-can’t do anything. And I hate them all.’

Donal has taken up photography – it suits his interiority and intensity – and he spends most of his free time in the dark room that his Aunt Margaret has built for him in her house. Nora’s acutely aware of the closeness between Margaret and Donal but seems resigned to it, perhaps realising that her grief prevents her from providing for Donal what Margaret so readily can.

The turning point of the novel comes soon after the darkest hour, when Nora, distressed by insomnia and nightmares brought on by painkillers, sees Maurice in her bedroom, sitting in the rocking chair. She has felt him close once before, on the beach at Cush where she fled in anger after a fight with a work colleague, at the same time remembering with great anguish the pain Maurice suffered before he died, but in the bedroom he has a corporeal presence.

Toibin writes: He was wearing the sports coat with green and blue flecks that they had bought at Funge’s in Gorey, and grey slacks and a grey short and a grey tie. He smiled for a moment as she pushed the door closed with her back. He was like he had been before he got sick. They talk for a while but Maurice speaks too enigmatically for her to understand, and soon his presence fades:

 She heard the sound of a car horn beeping on the street. She was lying across the bed with all her clothes on. When she sat up the room was empty. When she crossed the room and touched the rocking chair it rocked gently back and forth on the old springs. She put her hand where he had been sitting but there was no heat from it, nor any sign that anyone had been there.

Nora drives to her Aunt Josie’s to tell her about Maurice’s appearance. Aunt Josie tells her she was dreaming but Nora resists this interpretation:

She began to rock back and forth, crying. ‘If I could be with him . . .’

‘What did you say?’

‘If I could be with him, that’s what I said.’

Aunt Josie puts Nora to bed and rallies the family around her. And Nora rests and recovers while her sisters look after her boys. In a beautiful scene close to the end of the novel, Nora wakes on the couch to hear Aunt Josie and her two sisters talking about her: critically, humorously, lovingly, knowingly, as only close family can:

Nora began to laugh.

‘Look, she’s awake,’ Phyllis said.

‘We were just talking about you,’ Catherine said.

‘I heard every word,’ Nora replied.

Nora’s laughter is genuine, spontaneous and surprising; a sign of better things to come.

Grief following the death or loss of a partner, parent or child is the price one pays for human connection and thus an unavoidable part of our humanity. We put great store in love, therefore we grieve the loss of love and the loved one. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote famously on the five stages of grief, but current thinking suggests that people don’t need to grieve in five distinct and orderly stages. Instead, everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. While the feelings can be similar, grieving is not depression. However a small proportion of people may develop prolonged or complicated grief and some of these people may also have underlying depression. This article also states that feeling the presence of the deceased is commonly experienced by the bereaved.

Below is a very good summary article on the current psychological approach to grief and grieving:

I would also highly recommend Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she writes about the death of her husband.

LILA, Marilynne Robinson

What strikes me most about Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s fourth novel and the third set in the fictional town of Gilead, is the contrast between style and substance. Lila has lived a life of abject poverty and deprivation, a life so poor in all senses that it could have made for difficult, even laborious reading. Instead Robinson has created a story of hope and forgiveness, with Lila – strong, smart and good – at its luminous centre.

We first meet Lila as a child, covered in dirt and scratches and left in the dark on the stoop of the house where the adults sleep. We are given the child’s perspective here: Lila teases the cats under the house until in their escape they scratch her, and the adults are anonymous, hard-edged and violent; all except mysterious fierce-hearted Doll, who one evening steals Lila away into the forest, where it begins to rain. Robinson writes, ‘And then they sat on the ground, on pine needles, Doll with her back against a tree and the child curled into her lap, against her breast, hearing the beat of her heart, feeling it. Rain fell heavily. Big drops spattered them sometimes. Doll said, “I should have knowed it was coming on rain. And now you got the fever.” But the child just lay against her, hoping to stay where she was, hoping the rain wouldn’t end.’

This passage is reminiscent of infant bonding: the baby against the breast, hearing the mother’s heartbeat and recognising it as the constant reassuring sound of the womb. Doll becomes Lila’s surrogate mother, and Lila’s strong attachment to Doll sustains her through all the deprivation of their itinerant life, wandering from job to job and camp to camp until the destructive time of the Great Depression, what Lila knows only as the Crash.

After a few pages, encompassing this first scene of Doll’s ‘abduction’ of Lila and a quick overview of Lila’s childhood, Robinson takes us into Gilead, and Lila’s life in the present as Reverend Ames’ wife. How has this lonely, poverty-stricken, barely literate woman become an educated minister’s wife? It’s a surprising turn in Lila’s fortunes, and perhaps in another novelist’s hands we might not have believed in such a transformation. Not only does Robinson make us believe, she fills us with admiration for Lila as the agent of her own transformation.

Lila is a love story, through and through: a tale of romantic love, maternal love and a growing love of self. Robinson places Lila early in the novel in a safe place: in Gilead and married to John Ames, a kind, patient and enlightened man. He’s the old, wise benevolent father figure perhaps, the father that Lila never had, but there’s mutual respect and autonomy in Lila and Ames’ relationship. Despite Ames’ kindness and his willingness to listen, despite the homely comforts of nourishing food and clean clothes, it’s not all plain sailing, and given Lila’s difficult past one wouldn’t expect it to be. Lila’s often tempted to up and leave – the wandering life still calls her – but as she begins to reflect on her past so as to better understand it, her desire to stay with Ames grows. And she’s pregnant with his child.

Her pregnancy seems miraculous. John Ames’ first wife died in childbirth along with the infant, and Lila, having never been pregnant even though she worked for a while in a St Louis brothel, has believed herself infertile. Robinson writes, ‘Lila had thought about what it might be like having a child of her own, but it never happened. Something must have gone wrong sometime and her body just wouldn’t do it. Maybe that was what came of being a feeble child herself, or that her body didn’t wish that kind of life on anyone else. Or it could have been all the hard work.’ The novel moves through the months of Lila’s pregnancy and the beauty of the changing seasons, so marked in the North American mid-west, as Lila sits at home with her tablet and writes passages from the bible, mainly from the book of Ezekiel:

And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou was cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live.

Robinson’s use of bible passages is not overtly religious; rather these extracts serve as spiritual touchstones for Lila, reminding her of the past, allowing new interpretations of events and motives as she adjusts to the idea of motherhood. And they have a practical purpose too, for Lila is trying to improve her literacy and handwriting by this copying exercise. These extracts are beautiful simply as prose, and sit well with Robinson’s somewhat biblical style, but I imagine that poetry would have worked just as well as passages from Ezekiel. Here is a novel with bibliotherapy at its core: Lila wants to become a better reader, a wiser person. In order to do so she reads texts that help her reflect on and make sense of the past.

It’s Robinson’s determination not to make Lila a victim that I admire most about this beautiful novel. While she remembers hardship and some acts of cruelty — the time in the St Louis brothel is particularly dark – she’s also free to remember good things: Doll’s unwavering love, the friendship of the family with whom she and Doll travelled with for much of her childhood, and the simple pleasures of the itinerant life: county fairs, a good fire, a day’s pay for a day’s honest work. This sounds somewhat patronising as I write it, but Robinson makes it real, and her descriptions of the land are wonderfully uplifting. Lila herself understands and appreciates those things that have sustained her: Doll’s fierce protection; Lila’s love of the soil and growing things (peas, carrots and marigolds in a tiny plot at the brothel, roses on the grave of Ames’ first wife); the prodigious intelligence that fires her, despite her lack of education. As Robinson writes on page 4, ‘Lila would never tell anyone about that time. She knew it would sound very sad, and it wasn’t really. Doll had taken her up in her arms and wrapped her shawl around her.’

Doll’s shawl is Lila’s transition object, and Doll’s strange, whittled-down knife is her dowry, these two precious things talismanic of Doll and Lila’s past. While the shawl is always protective, the knife is both protective and dangerous, and is directly implicated in Doll’s disappearance from Lila’s life. Late in the book, just before the birth of her baby, Lila thinks about the knife: ‘That knife was the difference between her and anybody else in the world. Ugly old Doll hunched over the firelight, spitting on her bit of whetstone, sharpening and wearing the blade till the edge of it curved like a claw, readying herself for whatever fearful thing she turned over in her mind while she was working at it. And knowing that the fearful thing might take even Doll, who stole her and carried her away from whatever she could have had of place and name and kin, Lila watched her, hoping the knife would take on the witchy deadliness she was conjuring for it.’ A frightening image, but then Robinson begins the next paragraph this way: ‘Fear and comfort could be the same thing.’