Randolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the sea (#BookReview)

Randolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the seaRandolph Stow is a writer I’ve been meaning to read for the longest time – since, would you believe, the 1970s? Embarrassing, really, given his significance. My plan had always been to read his Miles Franklin award-winning novel To the islands first. However, the first I actually bought was The merry-go-round in the sea – back in 2009 when it was re-released as a $10 Penguin classic. It’s taken me until now to read it – and I read it with my reading group, which made it an extra special experience.

BEWARE SPOILERS, albeit this is a classic with minimal plot so, you know …

The merry-go-round in the sea was Stow’s fourth novel, published in 1965 when he was 30 years old. It has a strong autobiographical basis, but is, by definition, fiction. It is essentially a coming-of-age story about a young Western Australian boy, Rob, who, like Stow, was born in Geraldton in 1935. It covers eight years of his life from 1941, when his favourite cousin, the 21-year-old Rick, leaves to fight in World War 2, to 1949, when Rob is 14-years-old and the now-returned Rick is about to leave again, this time to live in London. The plot is not a particularly dramatic one, but rather a lot happens nonetheless.

It all starts in 1941 with Rob and his family moving (“evacuating” is the strange word his mother uses) to a family station in the country, due to fears of Japanese invasion. There Rob enjoys the life of a “bush kid” and is unhappy to find, upon his return to town, that he is really a “townie”. Meanwhile, Rick is at war, ending up a POW on the Thai-Burma railway. His experience is told in three or four brief but vivid digressions from the narrative’s main focus on Rob’s life. We are told enough to prepare us for a changed Rick on his return. In the second part of the novel, the focus is on Rob’s growing up, on his gradual loss of childish innocence, and on Rick’s struggles to come to terms with his life after his experience of war. Nothing is the same for Rick, and Rob worries about his idol.

Now, this is a 400-page novel (in my edition, anyhow) and can be discussed from multiple perspectives, so I’m going to hone in on a couple that most interested me.

One of these is heralded by the book’s structure, by the fact that, although the protagonist, the person through whom we “see” most of the book, is young Rob, the book’s two parts are named for Rick, “1 Rick Away 1941-1945”, and “2 Rick Home 1945-1949.” Superficially, this can be explained by the fact that Rick is a major focus of Rob’s interest. However, I’d argue there’s something more here, that these two characters represent conflicting forces – a duality – within Randolph Stow himself, one being his love of place, of the land and country he grew up in, and the other being his discomfort with that same place and his need to get away, which indeed he did. This duality was, as I recollect, discussed by Gabrielle Carey in her book Moving among strangers: Randolph Stow and my family (my review).

So … through Rob’s third person eyes, Stow writes gloriously, authentically, about Geraldton and the surrounding areas in which he grew up. The language is lyrical, poetic, conveying an emotional intensity in addition to pure description:

By rock pools and creeks the delicate-petalled wild hibiscus opened, and the gold-dust of the wattles floated on water. Wild duck were about, and in trees and in fox-holes by water he looked for the nests, staring in at the grey-white eggs but touching nothing. Climbing a York gum, he was startled when a grey broken-off stump suddenly opened golden eyes at him. He gazed into the angry day-dazzled eyes of the nesting frogmouth and felt he had witnessed a metamorphosis.

There’s repetition of colours, plants, and landforms, but rather than becoming tedious they convey a deep familiarity with and love of place – and make the novel sing.

However, through Rick’s eyes – albeit eyes damaged by his war experience – we see a more conflicted, and arguably more adult, understanding of this place. At the end, he explains his decision to leave to Rob:

‘Look, kid,’ Rick said, ‘I’ve outgrown you…


‘I can’t stand,’ Rick said, ‘this – ah, this arrogant, mediocrity. The shoddiness and wowserism and the smug wild-boyos in the bars. And the unspeakable bloody boredom of being in a country that keeps up a sort of chorus. Relax, mate, relax, don’t make the place too hot. Relax, you bastard, before you get clobbered.’

Stow wasn’t the only intellectual to leave Australia in the 1960s. Others include Germaine Greer, Clive Robertson, Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes.

My other issue is trickier to discuss: it concerns Stow’s references to Indigenous people in the novel. It’s complicated to tease out, and to do so properly would require a re-read, but I can’t leave the novel without saying something about it, given our heightened awareness these days. As I’ve already said, the book was written in 1965 about the 1940s. In 1957, Stow had spent three months as a storeman at the Forrest River Aboriginal mission in the Kimberleys. His biographer, Suzanne Falkiner, argued (on ABC RN Late Night Live) that this experience created some conflict for him:

‘[His family] had achieved a lot: they had been colonists in America, in the West Indies, the earliest settlers in that region of Australia,’ she says. ‘But as he grew older and as he got to know Aborigines, having worked in the Forrest River mission, I think the conflict became a real source of pain for him.’

I believe that Stow tried to convey some of this in The merry-go-round in the sea. Several times, Rob quotes his family’s racist attitudes, including here:

Rob did not mind the blackn*****s, some of the older ones he rather admired. But his mother was furious because Nan [Rob’s sister] was sitting next to a blackn****r in school. ‘They’re dirty,’ said his mother. ‘They all have bugs in their hair.’

It was funny about blackn*****s. 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.*

In other parts of the novel, he describes seeing Aboriginal art in caves, and ponders the people who made them. Not all are so sensitive or interested, however. When he’s taunted at school with having “n****r blood”, he reacts defensively, but when he’s a little older, and schoolfreinds once again express racist attitudes, he responds:

‘I like them,’ the boy said, ‘There’s some nice boong kids at school.’

A poor choice of words, but at least Rob stands up for his beliefs. If we take Rob as Stow’s mouthpiece, then it’s pretty clear that Stow is conveying in this novel some disquiet about prevailing attitudes to Australia’s Indigenous people.

There is so much more to explore in this book – including the motif of the merry-go-round itself. As a young boy Rob had been shattered by the discovery of “time and change”, leading him to cling to the idea of a merry-go-round, which revolves and revolves around a solid centre, his family, never changing. By the end, however, with Rick about to leave, he realises that this too is illusion, that the world is not quite as he’d seen it. A bittersweet ending – one that must come to us all at some time!

Several bloggers have posted on this novel in the last few years, including Lisa (ANZ Litlovers) and Kim (Reading Matters), and offer additional perspectives to mine.

Randolph Stow
The merry-go-round in the sea
Camberwell: Penguin Books, 2009
ISBN: 9780143202745

* I have blanked out this word to, hopefully, deflect the wrong sort of “hits” on this blog.

30 thoughts on “Randolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the sea (#BookReview)

  1. Great review, it makes me want to read this book. The two different perspectives between Rick and Rob sound so well done. Though it covers two different characters, it reminds me of different ways the same person might see the world at different points s in thier life.

    There are authors that I have been meaning to read since the 1980s 🙂

    • Thanks Brian. Yes they are well done. There’s so much more I could have said, as it’s such a rich, enjoyable read.

      I’m glad I’m not the only one with authors I’ve wanted to read for decades. It’s bad enough having book gaps, but author gaps can feel shaming!

  2. Thanks for the mention, Sue, I loved this book and you’re right, there’s a lot to tease out but I think you’ve hit on the two most significant issues. I was really pleased when they reissued it because I didn’t have – and couldn’t find – a copy until they did.

    • BTW, I tried to post a comment on YOUR post but it looks like comments are closed? Does your blog close off posts for comments after a certain time? Or has something inadvertently happened. I think there’s an option for closing off comments after a period, but I wouldn’t have thought you’d have wanted to do that?

      • I can’t remember, I think I might have set them to close after a year or two, I’m only just home from Norfolk Island now and bed is looking inviting, so I’ll check it out tomorrow…

        • (Home now). I’d set them to close after two years. I think I did it because I had some comments referring to books I’d read so long ago I couldn’t remember anything about them, and then I forgot about removing it when later I discovered that you can close comments for individual posts, which is a better idea.

        • Yes, I think that’s a better idea because you can close off controversial ones – which I think is a main reason they have that facility. I’ll go comment on the post later, as am about to go out.

    • I agree Nathan. Some felt he was too knowing at times, but I found d I could go with it. There are perceptive, sensitive children around. Stow was probably one himself. He is clearly loved in WA and should be better known here in the east. I’m surprised by the numbers who haven’t heard of him.

  3. Stowe is obviously a writer I should try to read. A couple of his novels did make UK paperback in the 60s/70s and I had a copy of To the Islands in Penguin but lost my copy during a move. It looks like Penguin still publish him so I have no excuse!

    • Yes, I think they do Ian. He seems to be regularly reprinted. He spent most of his adult life in England so hopefully you can find copies there. I think you’d find him interesting.

  4. PS By the way – reading beyond the two-thirds point of Trent Dalton’s brilliant new Boy Swallows Universe – set in an earlier Brisbane – part historical, part magical – but beautifully structured. Look out for it – if you’ve not already come across it. Jim


  5. I think I have put off reading this novel as long as you did, despite A. being Western Australian; and B. being both encouraged to and probably given a copy by my english teacher brother in law

      • Ha, ha (to borrow a Sue-ism) I worry that I’m seen that way. I don’t dislike men writers just books about guys doing stuff, especially stuff involving guns and or the Bush.

        • Oh dear, I realise I’ve been using “ha ha” a lot in recent times – I give you permission to use it whenever you like!

          As for what I said, I was teasing you – a bit. I like that you give such time to women writers, and that you call men writers to account.

  6. Wow! So long since I have thought of Randolph Stow! It’s so good to see his work still engaging readers. Thanks so much for the review. And ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ is on my TBR list – everyone I know who has read it loves it.

  7. Inspired by your rating of this in your Christmas newsletter, I suggested it for my book club. We have just had the meeting. Went well. To get the ball rolling, I got people to write one word to describe the book. We all then handed our sheet to the right, and the receiver had to explain why they agreed or disagreed with the word. So, lyrical, subtle, meandering… This actually worked well. We were three quarters through our hour before I had to resort to further questions. And to make it more interesting, one of our members had grown up in Geraldton in the ’60s. He felt the author had taken liberties with the topography of Geraldton, but the descriptions of property life were spot on. Everyone made a useful contribution to the discussion, which suggests a book worth talking about. Thanks for spurring me into suggesting it.

    • Oh that’s great to hear Neil – and of course it’s a good book for a WA book club. I can see your gaming background coming in to play with thinking of different ways of getting discussions going. I might suggest this one word idea to my group. (BTW My group did this book last year and it was rated equal third favourite for the year. (One book was first, another second, and three tied for third.)

      • I like to try something a little different when I am leading discussion. Book club meetings can get a bit stereotyped.

        • I love that Neil. I often try to think of something different for our end of year do, but not so much for regular meetings, partly because we don’t have discussion leaders. (We did when we started, but gave it up a long time ago. But, as I said, I might suggest this idea at a meeting – will probably discuss it with a friend first.)

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