There’s no getting away from the fact that Romy Ash’s début novel FLOUNDERING has garnered a lot of attention on the Australian literary scene. It was shortlisted for last year’s Vogel Award (for unpublished manuscripts) and this year as a published novel appeared on the shortlists for the inaugural Stella Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and now the first-ever all-female Miles Franklin Award shortlist. So the fact that I am underwhelmed by it won’t matter a jot. Which is as it should be.
Whereas last year my foray back into the literary end of the writing pool was very successful, forcing me to reconsider my “I’m done with literary fiction” stance, FLOUNDERING reminded me of all the reasons I gave up on it in the first place.
It starts with a woman picking up the two sons she abandoned a year or so earlier as they walk home from school. Loretta (she won’t be called mum), Jordy (13) and Tom (11) then travel across the country in the half of the novel that is reminiscent of the classic American road trip experience, though with a distinctly Australian flavour. Although the trip has seemed directionless it turns out Loretta’s aim was to reach a run down beach side caravan her parents have probably forgotten they own. In an event that was only surprising in terms of the length of time it took to happen, Loretta disappears again and, largely due to Jordy’s fierce fear of being fostered, the boys try to fend for themselves. There is, of course, an unsavoury neighbour to contend with on top of being young boys alone in the world.
I know it marks me as a literary lightweight but I want something to happen in the books that I read. Preferably several somethings, at least some of which aren’t predictable from page five. FLOUNDERING really doesn’t have much of a plot and what does exist is inevitable from the outset. There were no genuine surprises for me which made the book drag, a pretty astonishing feat given it’s only 202 pages long. This kind of meandering nothingness is what I remember most from slogging through literary fiction in the past and my tolerance for it has, if anything, shrunk as I’ve gotten older. I can appreciate some aspects of the book: the vivid sense of place, some individual moments of beautifully understated heartache and even the authentic nature of the narrator’s voice (though that came with its own problems). But I wanted a story too. More, really, than any of these other things.
FLOUNDERING is told from Tom’s perspective. The innocent, naive sensibility this allows for grew thin especially as it does, by necessity, leave a lot out. I found myself more interested in the book that Ash didn’t write. This is probably wildly unfair of me but I can’t help that I found the child’s point of view very limiting. His world view is, legitimately, narrow and consists of being in a hot car, not having enough food, taking lonely beach walks and going to the toilet. His inner life really isn’t that much more compelling. I would rather, for example, have known what Loretta was thinking as she drove off on a supposedly short errand that left her children alone in a new place and without food or water for a long, hot summer’s day but instead we spent (another) day viewed from the point of view of a kid whose time was largely spent sitting on a step outside his caravan.
Many reviews make particular and generally glowing mention of the fact that this book raises the issue of children at risk. It does, but only in a descriptive sense. That is it says “look, here are some children in danger” and then describes their particular version of danger for 200 pages. It doesn’t offer different perspectives on those dangers nor any insights into how they might be averted. It didn’t even touch on the vexing question of how a 13 year old has learned only bad things about the welfare/foster system in his young life.
After reading the book I listened to an interview with Romy Ash in which she said she wanted to write a book with no bad guys and I’ve been pondering this for a few days. I think it probably explains a lot. Ash has been gentle with everyone, even the people you might expect to dislike and while this is admirable in a “golly let’s all be totally non-judgemental of our fellow human beings” kind of way, ultimately it led to a very passive novel. To me it was just a handful of people doing a few not very interesting things for a while. And then they stopped.
There are however a gazillion glowing reviews of FLOUNDERING to be found so read a few of those before taking my word on anything. And if you do decide to read it make sure you’ve a large supply of drinking water to hand: I defy anyone to read it for long without becoming intensely thirsty.
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FLOUNDERING is the 8th book I’ve read as part of my participation in this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge, though only the first that sits outside my reading comfort zone of crime fiction.
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Publisher Text Publishing 
Length 202 pages
Book Series standalone
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