#OzFeb and #ReadIndies: Romy Ash – Floundering

Romy Ash: Floundering, Text Publishing, 2012.

Text Publishing feels like a big outfit, and they are my go-to publisher when it comes to Australian literary fiction, but it turns out that they are in fact an independent small publisher based in Melbourne. So I am delighted to be able to slot this book into two different reading challenge categories: #ReadIndies (finally!) as promoted by the veteran book bloggers Lizzy and Kaggsy; and my own reading Australia this month personal challenge, which I’ve somewhat irreverently dubbed #OzFeb, two short words for the shortest month of the year.

I didn’t know much about Romy Ash, other than that Floundering, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Prize (again! most of the books I read this month had some link to Miles Franklin). The same book was also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and Prime Minister’s literary award in Australia, and it must have been recommended to me by one of my Australian book blogger friends, because she is barely known outside her native country. She seems to be an essayist and short story writer, as well as a regular newspaper columnist, but I cannot find another novel written by her.

Just like another recent Australian novel I read, The Man Who Loved Children, this too is a fictional account of a dysfunctional family, seen through the eyes of one of the long-suffering children who has not fully grasped – or not wanted to admit – the extent of the parental abuse they are suffering. However, Floundering is mercifully much shorter, the father is completely missing and the mother is (criminally) negligent rather than abusive. That doesn’t make it much easier to read in terms of topic, but the style is simpler, pared-down, full of the kind of minute and immediate observations that ring true for an eleven-year-old boy.

Tom and his older brother Jordy have been dumped onto their grandparents by their mother several years ago, but now Loretta is back and wants a fresh start with her boys. They set off in a battered yellow car called Bert, in an American-style road trip to the Western Coast of Australia, with hardly any money or clear sense of purpose. Along the way, they learn to cope with heat, sunburn and sleeping in cramped backseats, shoplift from service stations, be in equal measure embarrassed and entranced by their mercurial mother. When they finally reach their destination, a beat-up caravan in a camping site on the coast, with the nearest source of drinking water a driving distance away, Loretta vanishes once again, and the boys are left at the mercy of interfering or, worse, dodgy neighbours like Nev.

The story itself didn’t feel very new and lost its momentum towards the end, but overall it had me reading compulsively to see if anything bad would happen to the children. There were some memorable, visceral scenes, which worked very well from the child’s point of view, as children tend to be aware of every single physical sensation and discomfort, and perhaps the very murky motivation of the Nev character reflected the confusion of a child wanting to trust an adult but not quite daring to. The grumpy yet protective relationship between the brothers felt very realistic. There was, however, occasional slippage into terminology that was overwrought for an eleven-year-old and the scenes with the dead shark or ‘gummy’, as the boys call it, were nauseating and overlong, belabouring the mistreatment metaphor a little too much.

The book’s title is not just about ‘floundering’ in the sense of thrashing about wildly or flailing either literally or mentally in mud and water, but about the process of catching the fish flounder, which their mother wants to show them. Needless to say, the experience is not as pleasurable as she remembered, but in her obsession to recapture the fun and magic of the past, she seems horribly indifferent to the fact that one of her sons is nearly drowning in the here and now.

Floundering is what some have disparagingly called a ‘misery memoir’, but I would simply call it a novel about a childhood stunted by inadequate parenting and poverty-stricken living conditions. There have always been a number of those, some autobiographical, others more fictional, at the mercy of the ebb and flow of public interest and demand. I have struggled to engage with Angela’s Ashes, A Child Called It or Running with Scissors – but they all contributed to the boom in 2006-8 of this sub-genre teetering at the edge of fiction and true story. There was a lull after that, but we seem to be on a rising tide again, with Douglas Stuart’s fictional Shuggie Bain winning the Booker Prize in 2020, while Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn is at the memoir end of the spectrum. I haven’t read these last two, but the ones I have found particularly moving and subtly written (rather than purely in it for the shock factor) are (the country in brackets is where the events take place, rather than the nationality of the author):

  • Heather O’Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals (Canada)
  • Janice Galloway: All Made Up (Scotland)
  • Jung Chang: Wild Swans (China)
  • Jason Donald: Choke Chain (South Africa)
  • Hanne Ørstavik: Love (Norway)

#OzFeb, but not quite #ReadIndies: Christina Stead

Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children, Capuchin Classics, 2010.

Christina Stead (1902-1983)

I so very nearly had a book for #ReadIndies too, because Capuchin Classics was an independent publisher based in London bringing back or keeping alive forgotten classics. However, they don’t seem to have brought out any books recently or updated their website or Twitter since 2013, so I think they might no longer exist. Alas, such is the fate of far too many small independent publishers, so please support them if you can! The big mammoth publishers have big deals with the chain bookstores and libraries, can afford to pay for promotion at literary festivals or participate in literary prizes, but independents struggle to even be seen by distributors or readers.

But back to Christina Stead, highly respected Australian writer, and her magnum opus, The Man Who Loved Children, which is partly based on her own childhood, although the setting has been (rather unconvincingly at times) transposed to Washington DC for the US publication of the book – and there they remained. The novel was written in 1935 and published in the US in 1940.

It is the portrait of the unravelling of a highly problematic family with six children. Sam Pollit is the self-absorbed and preening scientist and narcisstic and bullying father of the title. Henny is the long-suffering mother, who vents her bitterness and dissatisfaction at her children, her husband, and above all at her step-daughter Louie, Sam’s daughter from the first marriage. Sam uses his children as a shield, confides in them things that he shouldn’t, controls and manipulates them, teases them mercilessly, has developed a secret language with them. They are enchanted by this playful, story-telling figure, who is so much more exciting than their grumpy, self-pitying mother, even when he hurts them.

If you need your characters to be likable, you should definitely not open this book! The warring couple are unbearable and hateful, each in their own way: their quarrels are brutal, nasty and left me as a reader feeling deeply uncomfortable. Personal disclosure here: my own parents were terribly mismatched and fought frequently when I was a child (although their story did not end in tragedy like this one), so it brought back a few traumatic memories.

So that is one reason I struggled with this book. The second was, of course, the way those poor children were treated, although the author presents all this in a matter-of-fact way, as viewed from within the family, so that the full eccentricity or even horror of it only becomes apparent when they receive visitors (for example, when the schoolteacher or a relative comes for dinner). The third reason is that I met leaders of religious cults who behaved in the same apparently charismatic, lovably naive but actually stone-cold manipulative way – and Sam does create a ‘cult’ atmosphere about the Pollits. The fourth reason is that the book is long, chaotic, repetitive, its style deliberately ugly at times. Powerful, yes, but painful to read. For example, here is Henny contemplating the parallels between their rundown house and her marriage:

She belonged to this house and it to her. Though she was a prisoner in it, she possessed it. She and it were her marriage. She was indwelling in every board and stone of it, every fold in the curtains had a meaning… every room was a phial of revelation to be poured out some feverish night in the secret laboratories of her decisions, full of living cancers of insult, leprosies of disillusion, abscesses of grudge, gangrene of nevermore, quintan fevers of divorce, and all the proliferating miseries, the running sores and thick scabs for which (and not for its heavenly joys) the flesh of marriage is so heavily veiled and conventually interned.

Never knowingly simplify a sentence! Make sure you hammer home a certain sentiment by repeating it in every conceivable way! While this works well when uttered by the two main grownup characters, it does feel excessive in third person, especially when it is observed and commented upon by fourteen-year-old Louie. I admire the author’s ability to create such a stifling, horrendous family atmosphere and vile characters, but it proved too relentless for me, and I skim read the last third of the book. I recognised some of the darkness and dysfunctionality that Shirley Jackson also has in her writing, but how much more subtly and succinctly!

Here, for instance, is Sam demonstrating his manipulative misogyny and sneaky ways of winning the children over:

No man could be so cruel, so devilish, as a woman with her weakness, recrimination, convenient ailments, nerves, and tears. We mean are all weak as water before the primitive devices of Eve. I was patient at first, many years. You were too young then, Looloo; you did not see how kind I was, hoping for an improvement: constant dropping wears away a stone, and it was only much later that I found out hardness worked better than love. It broke my heart, nearly, to find it out. It would have broken my heart only that I had other interests.

Another speech that was a little too close to personal experience, to how my ex-husband would talk about me when I was clinically depressed. Although Henny irritated me in lots of ways, I could understand her exasperated, violent outbursts and almost cheer her on when she said:

…boasting and blowing about your success when all the time it was me, my poor body, that was what you took our success out of… I’ve stuffed mattresses for you and your children and cooked dinners for the whole gang of filthy, rotten, ignorant, blowing Pollits that I hate. I’ve had the house stinking like a corpse cellar with your formalin… and had to put up with your vile animals and idiotic collections and your blood-and-bone fertilizer in the garden and everlasting talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, boring me, filling my ears with talk, jaw, jaw, till I thought the only way was to kill myself to escape you and your world of big bluffs and big sticks, saving the whole rotten world with your talk.

But for all her big words, she ends up having another child with her husband, and does not find a sensible way out of the whole situation.

It is an extreme and very dark view of the relationship between the sexes, between parents and children. It may be considered a masterpiece of Australian literature or of 20th century literature more widely, but it left a very bitter taste in my mouth.

Two Books with a Great Sense of Place

REdRoadToday I’m comparing and contrasting two books I’ve recently read, which both have a wonderful sense of local atmosphere.

The first is ‘The Red Road’ by Denise Mina, out in paperback on Feb. 13th, 2014.

Author Denise Mina has an instantly recognisable voice in crime fiction: compassionate yet completely unsentimental. She is the mistress of portraying the lost souls of urban poverty and the tough choices they have to make. Rough areas, with buildings ripe for demolition (the Red Road flats in Glasgow are real and are indeed being gradually demolished), decaying morals, corruption at all levels, contrast between rich and poor, the educated and the deprived. This book falls most certainly within the Tartan noir category. It talks about recent history but observed through two different time frames: the night of Diana’s death (because everyone can remember where they were on that night) and the present day. Mina excels at social commentary without preaching, simply by letting her characters talk. And what well-rounded, plausible characters they are, most of them facing heart-breaking dilemmas. I’ve not read previous books in the Alex Morrow series (although I have read other Denise Mina books), but that did not diminish at all my reading experience.

‘The Outcast Dead’ by Elly Griffiths falls more towards the cosy end of the crime fiction spectrum, although it too deals with the harrowing subject of lost or mistreated children. Griffiths’ local area are the flat, isolated Norfolk broads, very rural, traversed by hidden causeways and visited by regular sinister fogs.

OutcastDead Yet the author introduces us to an ostensibly comfortable and comforting community: middle-class, well-educated population, church towers instead of tower blocks, village pubs instead of orphanages. There is a historical dimension here (of course there would be with a forensic anthropologist as the main protagonist) – even slight tinges of the supernatural – but we are operating squarely within a single time frame. I had read the first book in the Ruth Galloway series, but none since, so it did feel a little as though I had not seen a friend for many years and had too much to catch up on. Ruth, however, remains a lovable, no-nonsense every woman heroine (despite her complicated family dynamic).

There are some similarities between these two books, although they probably do address two quite distinct crime fiction audiences (unless you are a greedy omnivorous reader like myself). Families do not necessarily provide a safe haven, and children are all too often the victims: kidnapped, manipulated, possibly killed by the people in whose care they’ve been placed. Outcasts in both cases. And of course both writers are masterful at giving us enough of the local atmosphere to really drive the story forward: the descriptions are always economic, never overdone, with gradual layering of details.

One quibble I do have: given that the books are so different, why are the covers rather similar in colour, lettering and silhouetted imagery? It seems to be a current trend in crime fiction – similar ones have arrived in my post box for the past year or so, from different publishers and for different authors, ranging from Fred Vargas to Alison Bruce. I actually quite like the moodiness and blue is my favourite colour… but diversity is the mother of originality!