I love the new Penguin Modern Classics. They are some of the best designed books I have seen in a long while. And when trying to decide which of them to get my grubby little hands on, I figured that the ones released only in Australia (for the time) would be the best way to go. And where better to start than Geraldton, where some of may family lives?
It is the years before the Second World War. Eight year old Rob Coram lives with his family in the small coastal town of Geraldton, on the north coast of Western Australia. He has a huge family with which he spends a vast majority of his time. Of particular interest to Rob is his 18 year old cousin, Rick, who is suddenly called up to serve in the War, which has just begun. When Rick returns from the war, however, he is not quite the same man he was when he left.
I can’t believe I’ve picked yet another novel with a child as the main character. Do I hate myself? Nope. All credit to Stow, this one is not annoying in any way. Rob is a great creation. He’s so, well, normal. As he grows, he has normal problems. He doesn’t worry about using swanky language – he worries about things that a six year old would worry about. Like why his mum won’t let him play on the merry-go-round, even though it’s broken. And as the eight years of this novel pass, he turns into a teenager that feels as ordinary as you or I. It’s really very well done. And while Stow has created an excellent character in Rob, it is Rick that is the stand-out of this novel. His transformation from cocky, good-looking, know-it-all teenager, into a man that has lost all sense of youth thanks to his treatment in the war is beautiful. Stow doesn’t try to tug at the heartstrings, preferring instead to make it a little subtle. He doesn’t go for angry clichés about the pointlessness of war – he leaves that well away – and manages to stay away from the other well-trodden ideas of alcoholism and depression.
The relationship between these two characters underpins the entire novel, though there are several other important relationships that are well worth mentioning. In particular is Rick’s friendship with Hugh Mackay, a man with whom he fought in the war, and came back to Australia together. Their eventually conflicting view of life after the war is an excellent juxtaposition that, again, Stow does not try to ram home, instead allowing it to slowly be recognised and understood. The entire family clan that Rob and Rick belong to is also a delight, with tens of cousins slowly changing over the book, aunts and uncles dying, and the continuing presence of Charles Maplestead.
The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea is well worth the read. It kind of creeps up on you, until you get to end and really don’t want it to finish. So, Stow has clearly done something right, and while that is always hard to pin down, I think that, in the end, this book is all about subtlety turning into something else, which fits really well into the views of youth and experience that are talked about throughout this excellent book.