Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Nine of us, a surprisingly large number for mid-winter, gathered for this discussion. The book, Randolph Stow's The merry-go-round in the sea, is semi-autobiographical, and concerns an extended family on sheep stations, especially in Geraldton, Western Australia. Rob is just six years old in 1941 when his adored cousin Rick leaves to join the army. Rick returns from the war much changed, and Rob is changing too. Most of us had read the whole book, and almost all of us loved it. Our initial responses included: “Delightful, fantastic, immersive”; ”Old fashioned, Rob seems too aware for his age”; “Beautifully structured”; “felt very alive – good read”; “All your senses are engaged”. It certainly gave us a great deal to talk about.

Some of us found the use of racist language disturbing. The book was published in 1965, many years after the Second World War, and language and attitudes to Aborigines and people of other races were already changing. We wondered if Stow put the harsh words in the mouths of his characters repeatedly to contrast them with Rob’s more sympathetic attitude to some Aborigines he knew, for example older children that he admired. They talk about the “Hand Cave”, and on questioning, even Rob’s Mother’s attitude seems much more moderate than the language she uses to describe Aborigines. While necessarily reflecting the language used at the time, is the author subtly calling the racism to account? Stow, and Rob, seem to love the landscape of Australia while deploring some of the values. “If I had Convict or Aboriginal blood I’d be related to everyone in Australia” “Except the Italians!” There seems to be a similar subtle questioning around the casual killing of animals which was very much part of rural life at the time.

We all loved the poetic writing and detailed descriptions and felt that the landscape was part of the emotional language of the book, giving a vividly strong sense of place. One of us was reminded of Camus’s The outsider - at one with the environment and with a deep sense of the person. The way that the description of landscape underlies the mood of the book was described as masterly, for example the landscape is very bleak when the family wonders whether Rick has been killed in the war. We were grateful for the brilliant, detailed, involving description of the droving trip, an iconic Australian experience which seems distant now.  We also loved the quotes of poetry from the school books and the popular music of the time which really grounded it in the period.

The humour was appreciated. Auntie Kay is knitting socks, and is “aware of the sock situation in outlying parts of the family”.

The book was felt to be satisfying as a coming-of-age story, but seemed much more complex. Rob, a precociously aware six-year-old, certainly matures considerably and along the way we get many insights into the maturing process. We discussed the relationship between Rob and Rick. One commented that Rick was all the more important as a role model for Rob as Rob’s own father seemed to suffer from Depression and was emotionally distant, except for one powerful scene. Rob agonises over the criticisms aimed at Rick when he returns, damaged, from the War, almost as though they are criticisms of Rob himself. Is Rob the young Randolph or is it Rick? It was decided that they are two parts of the author’s self. Rick seems to be in a dark place towards the end of the book, and Randolph Stow had a nervous breakdown while in New Guinea.

Why was Rob often described as “the boy” and his mother as “the mother”? Was this a way of universalising their experience?  In Tourmaline the narrator is known simply as “the law”.
One of us found the scenes between Rick and his girlfriend unconvincing, but then the relationship didn’t survive. Randolph Stow was gay, which usually wasn't talked about in the 60's any more than during the war.

We noticed the relatively restrained descriptions of the prisoner of war experience by today’s standards, and wondered whether this reflected the characteristic reticence of returned prisoners at the time. Maybe there was less understanding of what they had experienced than came out later? At the time POWs were not considered heroes, one of many things which seem to eat at Rick.  As the second son he was not needed to run the farm, and his decision to leave the country, while it came as a shock to Rob, was not uncommon among tertiary educated youth at the time who found Australia stifling.

Was the Merry-Go-Round a symbol of no change? Rob wanted things to stay the same even as he could see that things were changing. Is the Merry-Go-Round metaphor echoed in the quote from Donne which Rick wrote in Rob’s autograph book when he returned home after the War? He had been much affected by the post card which Rob had sent him, the only post that he received at all during his imprisonment:
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I began

By the end of the book Rob’s imagined Merry-go-Round in the Sea has crumbled into the sea. One commented that the ending was a bit clunky compared to the rest of the book. Many of us felt that Randolph Stow is underrated these days, and want to read Tourmaline now.

PRESENT: 10 members (the tenth arriving late!)