Brendan Ritchie. Carousel. Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle Press. RRP:$ 19.99, 352 pp, ISBN: 9781925162141
People joke about becoming lost forever in Ikea. In Carousel, Brendan Ritchie expands this notion to create a tense, thought-provoking work of young adult speculative fiction. It is a study of friendship and self-knowledge, as well as a stab at the rule of commercialism. What do we want when we want for nothing?
The novel centres on four young people trapped by an apocalyptic event inside the sprawling retail megalith of Carousel Shopping Centre—a real-life location in one of Perth’s outer suburbs. Nox is a twenty-four-year-old Arts graduate. His job is unfulfilling and his relationship with his girlfriend perfunctory. He is delivered to Carousel early one morning by a taxi, where he finds himself idling in the mall beside the Canadian indie female pop duo, Taylor and Lizzy, similarly delivered. The three are soon joined by fifteen-year-old Rocky, a Target employee, who wheels around the centre on a bike. Rocky never complains, nor, for that matter, says much at all. He’s ‘the skinny kid in school that you decided you would stick up for’ (32).
The seasons come and go with only the occasional glimpse or whiff of the outside world. For sustenance, the four raid the shopping centre’s food outlets and when supplies start to wane they develop a vegetable garden. ‘Wanting’ must be contrived. ‘[Taylor] would drive Lizzy crazy waiting on her to finish a book rather than get a new one off the shelf. […] Something about keeping a lid on the world. About making sure she still wanted things, because wanting was important. In some way, wanting was tied to survival’(52). Unlike Taylor, who sets off daily to find a chink by which they might escape, Nox is fearful of returning to a world in which his life is unchanged. He’d rather like to stay.
It’s only when Rocky becomes ill that patience, ‘making do’ and half-hearted attempts at escape are not enough.
Carousel is Ritchie’s debut novel. His usual milieu is screenwriting, apparent in the spareness of the language. The novel is written in the first person (Nox) but there is observation rather than interior monologue; and as befits the sterile surrounds of empty corridors and glass shopfronts, depictions of setting are generally spartan. Thus when Ritchie lets loose, as when Nox, Taylor and Lizzie take the ailing Rocky to watch a thunderstorm, the passage is all the more powerful.
Accepting the underlying post-apocalyptic premise, some elements of the plot may strain readers’ credulity. One might be the lengthy time taken by the group to begin exploring the farthest reaches of their prison. For me, this was a stretch. But it was one I was willing to make, for the protracted hothouse nature of the group’s existence is part of the novel’s intrigue.
The setting may be sterile but the novel is not. Ritchie writes with insight and casual elegance, managing to create a work that, though driven by the characters’ boredom and the shrinkage of their physical world, is rich and moving.
Jen Banyard is the author of several novels for younger readers and has a PhD in Creative Writing [from UWA].