Floundering by Romy Ash (Penguin Books Australia, 2012)
Ash’s first novel, set in Australia, is distinctive and memorable. Whether it does enough to gain the widespread support that some early commentators seem to think it deserves is another matter. The story is centred on Tom, his older brother Jordy, and their mother Loretta. Their ages are not disclosed, but Jordy is probably in his early teens. Tom is a little younger. Loretta is most likely in her late twenties.
Michael Laws would undoubtedly categorise Loretta as ‘feral,’ and Ash does everything she can to re-inforce this perception. Loretta collects the two boys from her parents’ house and they head off on a road trip. Loretta doesn’t have a clue what the boys need, drives a car that is falling apart and full of rubbish, and seems to not have much money. She feeds them junk food from time to time, which she may or may not have stolen. Constantly hot and thirsty, the boys appear glad to be with their mother, as far as we can tell.
And that’s the problem with this book. Told exclusively by Tom, in the first person and the present tense, the novel is at the same time compelling but flawed. Writing convincingly from a child’s point of view is difficult. The circumstances Tom finds himself in are conveyed with an immediacy and directness that’s hard to capture any other way. We see what Tom sees, as he sees it. We feel what he feels, at the time he feels it, because he is telling us all this as it happens. Mark Haddon, in his book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time did the same, but with a level of humour and dramatic tension that Ash doesn’t quite achieve.
We don’t know what Loretta and Jordy see, feel, or think, and that’s fine. Plenty of books stay with one point of view. But by going for the first person narrative in the present Ash needs to write Tom as a twelve year old, with a twelve year old’s world view, experience and knowledge. That is, she needs to write with a limited perspective. We can expect Tom to know he’s thirsty, or he misses his grandparents, or he’s worried about missing school. We don’t expect him to suddenly come out with a metaphor about the sunset, or describe the ‘electric blue of the late afternoon,’ or know the word ‘mewling.’ He may be exceptionally poetic, but most of his account doesn’t lead to that conclusion. Ash drops in childish language to show us that it is Tom speaking. This, again, would be fine if it were consistent, or limited to dialogue, but it’s not. Mostly we have perfect sentences – remember, this is Tom speaking to us – but then we read ‘…them kids…’ or ‘…I ain’t going… .’ I found these attempts to persuade me that I was actually listening to Tom speak achieved quite the opposite. They jolted me out of his world. And the thing is, the book doesn’t need them. As readers, we know and accept that Tom isn’t actually speaking to us, here and now, and we go with it.
In her portrayal of the harshness of rural Australia, and the people who inhabit it, Ash doesn’t flinch. It is unbearably hot. Drivers of utes and trucks are always somewhat threatening. Attendants at remote filling stations are suspicious. Neighbours in caravans appear seedy, and in fact turn out to be so. In other hands, these characters might seem stereotypical but Ash, through Tom, reports a world that we recognise as real, and it is very convincing. This is where the child’s eye works very well. Ash is unspecific about the precise locations, and I wanted to know a little more about where in Australia they were supposed to be, but I accepted that Tom was telling the story and he simply wouldn’t know. With no drawing back from the immediacy of Tom’s experience, no wider perspective, and virtually no reflection on things that happened in the past (the exception is a brief episode, early in the book, where Tom remembers Loretta leaving them at her parents house a year earlier,) the book works almost like a film.
Ash’s real strength is in the skilful way she leads us inevitably into a scenario in which the boys are in danger, in multiple ways, without any single big external event as the cause. I felt I could see, smell and feel their car, the hot blacktop, and the cramped caravan where they end up, thanks to Tom’s straightforward observations. The scene which gives the book its name is truly frightening, but it starts off with Loretta simply trying to do something with her boys that they’ll enjoy as a family. The ending wasn’t a surprise but it also wasn’t predictable. Neither did it tie everything up neatly, which is to Ash’s credit.
I read Floundering in two quick sessions. The book is divided into two parts of almost equal length, although there’s nothing really to justify the break. At just over 200 pages, with generous spacing, it is not a long book. Despite my misgivings about the tense and the point of view, I found several of Tom’s experiences jumping back into my mind for days after I’d finished reading, and I also found myself wanting to know what happens after the book finishes. Both are good signs; this isn’t a book that you forget when you put it down. In the end, though, I think the simplicity of both the plot and the narrative isn’t quite enough. I think Ash has more to say, and I’d certainly pick up her next novel, when it arrives, to see what she does next.