I've read this novel 3 times and it remains one of my favorite coming-of-age novels. I can't remember the first time I read it - perhaps when I was 15 or 16. The story of a large and extended family, the imagery and a look at Australia through the eyes of a six-year-old boy (Rob) which is matched by nostalgic descriptions of a time and place long gone. I think one of the big reasons this novel is as popular today as it was when first published in 1965 is because it takes people back to an era where life in Australia seemed less complicated, more innocent, and the rest of the world so far away.
For Rob and his little friends, school closed if it was too hot, and the teachers took those who couldn't go home to the pool. They were free to climb trees from which one might fall; free to dangle precariously from playground equipment and free to experience that frisson of danger as they hurtled around in space.
Rob's world is a perfect picture of an Australian childhood. Rough-housing your siblings, feeling proud of being the eldest, hiding from your parents when you get your clothes dirty and trying to impress the kids who are just that little bit older are the things we all do growing up, and it's these small, relatively mundane things that make this story work so well.
The story begins in 1941 in the early years of WWII and is told from the point of view of Rob Coram, a six-year-old who lives with his extended and well-to-do family in Geraldton, WA. Rob's childhood is full of glorious freedoms to roam the town, the beach and the farmlands around Geraldton oblivious to the war, until it claims his adored older cousin Rick.
But for Rob, the idea of war is remote. Yes, the maid vanishes, there are air raid trenches in the tennis court, and his father goes away to man the garrison in Perth, but Rob - who doesn't even realise that the place Australia is where he himself lives - is too young to understand. The story follows Rob as he grows up in Geraldton, Western Australia, and begins to understand the concepts of war, countries and his homeland.
Rick is held prisoner as a POW in Thailand. His experiences are sprinkled through the text in the form of brief, drastic and horrible episodes. When Rick returns to Australia, carrying with him the nightmarish memories of his internment, Rob, now 14 rejoices and lavishes care and attention on his hero. But Rick is changed. He plans to move away, leaving the devastated Rob to move onto his next stage in growing up.
One of the most powerful remarks comes from Rob - He followed, crunching the big dry leaves. 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.
It will never be that minute again. It will never be today again. Never.
The symbol of the merry-go-round is more than just a symbol of childhood fun. It represents life through the eyes of childhood. It goes on forever, it's constant and smooth.
There is a jolt when another child jumps on the merry go round. Here's an extract "The boy's life had no progression, his days led nowhere. He woke in the morning in his room, and at night he slept: the wheel turning full circle, the merry-go-round of his life revolving. There had been a jolt, with Rick's going, but the grief faded, and the merry-go-round had bumped, jolting a little on its iron stays, and then grown steady again and gone on turning."