I had never heard of Romy Ash, or her debut novel, Floundering, before attending the Emerging Writers Festival last month and hearing her speak as part of the Writing About Difficult Issues panel. After the panel, I went downstairs and bought Floundering, along with the Festival's own publication, The Emerging Writer. If the EWF had given me nothing else (although it did - so, so much), the gift of being made aware of these two book would have been enough. Because The Emerging Writer, which I intend to review soon, is wonderful; and Floundering is still haunting me, two weeks after I swallowed it whole in one sleepless night.
I bought Floundering because, hearing Ash speak, it sounded like it might resonate with two of my key writing and reading interests - writing authentically in a child's voice, and writing trauma obliquely rather than explicitly. One of my absolute favourite books of the past 5 years is Emma Donoghue's Room, which takes on a myriad of social, cultural and abusive issues through the lens of a five-year-old boy who's lived his whole life inside a locked garden shed with his mother, herself imprisoned by her stranger-abductor. My own two completed novels, while not covering such significantly dark issues of trauma, are written in the voice of an 11 year old girl, Frankie. I wondered if Ash's 11-year-old protagonist, Tom, would be someone I could "hear" in the same way, and if his story would grip me tight, as Jack's did in Room.
I'm not going to do too much spoiling in this review, but the broad premise of the plot is the story of Tom, his 13-year-old brother Jordy, their mother, Loretta, their journey across Australia to end up at a remote caravan park by the beach, and what happened next. Tom is the only narrator; there is no shift in POV or voice, which is key, I think, to the successful winding up of the spell that this book casts.
I found Tom an intensely sympathetic and authentic character. Seeing events, people and crises through his eyes lent this ultimately quite sad story a sometimes unbearable layer of poignancy that I think may not have been there if an adult narrator was the voice. Because Tom is 11, there are things he relates without necessarily making the connection to meaning in the same way that an adult or a teen might; this adds a sense of menace, of impending danger just out of view, to the narrative. Tom's confusion, sweetness and half-despairing love for his deeply troubled mother give this tale of loss such a pathos, but also a kind of detached innocence that Loretta's voice, or even 13 year old Jordy's, wouldn't have.
There are many things I admire deeply in this book - its evocation of a certain very recognisable Australian aesthetic, its beautiful and never heavy-handed symbolism, its portrait of brokenness and survival and the terrible resilience of love, its stubborn presence even after seemingly unforgiveable betrayals. It is an achievement of no mean proportions that, despite sparing us nothing in her picture of Loretta as an unstable and ultimately neglectful mother, Ash doesn't allow the reader to quite hate her or demonise her; rather, for all her feckless damaging missteps, we feel for her, just as her sons do.
The anti-hero of the book is a character about whom I want to say very little, because I am so deeply conflicted about his role in the story. I realise that Ash wants us to see complexity and nuance in him also, and has deftly painted it there for us to see, but, possibly due to the lens I bring to this (and any) book involving children, I do not see him as less than monstrous. Human, yes, but a monster all the same, and my largest problem with Loretta was that her actions brought her sons into his orbit.
I found the final few chapters of the book, with Jordy and Tom's ultimately ill-fated effort to save the gummy shark (the unspoken stand-in for the marooned mother that they may never be able to save), to be absolutely tragic. The ending was inevitable, but still deeply, deeply sad, and I read the conclusion with tears in my eyes.
This is a powerful book, a beautiful book, a book that stays with you for a long time and simmers away. I highly recommend it, only not if you're feeling fragile; it will demand an emotional investment of you, and it will hurt your heart a little, in the way that true tragedies do.