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):