Romy Ash is a Melbourne-based writer, who, prior to the release of this debut novel was best known for her award-winning short fiction, which has appeared regularly in Australian literary journals. Those familiar with her work have been struck by the deceptive nature of her story writing. While sensing the potential menace lurking in the shadows of the central narrative, when the full emotion and occasional shock contained in one of her stories is revealed, it comes as a surprise.
Floundering is no exception. In manuscript form it was shortlisted for the 2011 the Australian/Vogel literary award, deservedly so. It tells the story of two young brothers, Tom, the narrator, his older brother, Jordy, and their fractured life on the road with their wayward mother, Loretta. Tom’s is a pitch-perfect voice. Despite her occasional abandonment of her children he loves his mother deeply. He also locates safety in his at times emotionally distant brother.
The novel begins with Tom and Jordy feeling a little bewildered when their mother appears out of nowhere, collects them from the side of the street, and whisks them away from the care of their grandmother, who has been looking after them during one of their mother’s absences. Loretta takes them on a journey across the country to the far-flung reaches of the remote west, to a rundown tourist campsite, where the boys encounter Nev, a consummate loaner escaping civilisation, and perhaps himself.
The novel covers some familiar territory in Australian fiction; a dry and thirsty landscape, the ever-present stench of brutality (including a decapitated kangaroo), about to occur or recently passed, and characters who seem to have no place to bed down, except those that are socially and morally uninhabitable. What sets Floundering apart is Tom. He is witness to his mother’s erratic behaviour and the strategic but dangerous choices Jordy makes in order to survive. The reader realises, through Tom, that he does not clearly understand all that is happening around him. We know more about Loretta’s potential for recklessness than Tom does. But we know this through him. Likewise, with Jordy. Tom conveys a typical younger sibling’s blind faith in an older brother. Jordy is in many ways Tom’s security and emotional blanket. And yet, his behaviour and Tom’s faith in his brother could cost both of them dearly.
This emotional depth is the key to the book. It is a testament to Ash’s writing. With subtlety and minimalism she is able to conjure characters of such richness that we fear and ache for them. Her ability to create empathy for Nev, in particular, is astounding. When Loretta arrive at the rundown tourist site beyond the edge of nowhere, one of the first people that the boys meet is Nev. Sitting outside his rundown caravan, drinking alone, he warns the boys off – repeatedly. Initially he represents nothing more than a crotchety old man. But there is more to Nev, a truly darker side that Jordy directly experiences.
We should feel repulsion towards Nev. Some readers may do so. It is striking to note that, as with the boys’ mother, he is an adult that they cannot really trust. He conveys this in a scene witnessed and confusingly articulated through Tom. The boy knows that what he is seeing is frightening. And yet Nev, even in this moment, is a pathetic figure that we also pity.
As the novel moved to its conclusion my apprehension over Tom and Jordy’s safety shifted to genuine fear. While the novel is not exactly a page-turner, I could not leave the book until I knew the fate of the boys. When it arrived and I had finished the book, put it down and walked away from it, Tom and Jordy stayed with me. And so did Nev.
In the final scenes Romy Ash delivers the most subtle and poignant of endings. A writer of less confidence, of less faith in her characters, would have gone for something more dramatic, I’m sure. Perhaps an escapist ‘trick’ that the master of the short story, Raymond Carver, railed against. Instead, I was left to ponder the lives of these vulnerable and courageous children. And I was left to think about the flawed worlds of adults, delivered through the emotional suffering of Loretta and Nev. Floundering doesn’t necessary raise questions that are not answered. Its strength is such that as readers we will shape and asks those questions ourselves.