Published in 1965, The merry-go-round in the sea is a superb novel. It manages to be both simple and complicated in its themes and prose.
Rob Coram is six at the beginning of World War Two when his favourite cousin, Rick, goes off to war. The novel follows them both over the next eight years, as Rob grows in his awareness of the world and Rick comes home depressed and restless.
I’ve read few novels which have evoked the landscape so well as this one. Stow manages to describe all the smells and sounds and sights and perceptions of the Geraldton town and countryside, and reproduce them as a precocious child would sense them. His prose is both precise and poetic.
As a coming of age novel, it works well too. Stow shows how the passage of time alters Rob’s perception of the world, captured well in the title. Rob thinks that the mast of a wrecked ship out at sea is a merry-go-round and he’d like to one day swim out to and play in it. He clings onto the belief even when his mother tells him it is not so. A few years later he manages to swim there with his friend and can look back with a bittersweetness at his old innocence.
But it’s also about Rick growing up, or refusing to grow up; coming home from the war and realising that he can’t settle down into what he sees as the suffocation of the suburbs.
As well as this, it’s a novel about family, a large and extended family which has stayed close and has its own web of folklore and custom.
One thing it’s not is a page turner. The prose is so pristine and the scenes so self-contained that it didn’t have a strong narrative drive for me.