The tangy residue of Twisties on small fingers. The sickly flavor of soft drink so warm it tastes like tea. Vinyl car seats that melt and stick. In her debut novel, Romy Ash has conjured startlingly an aspect of Australian childhood – sitting, hot, thirsty and uncomfortable in the back seat of a boiling car, skin covered with the grit of sand and salt from the beach, arguing with your brother over who called shotgun. Though much of this novel is chilling, the pleasure of Ash’s debut comes from the comforting familiarity of her rendering of a particular aspect of life in a coastal country, captured so uncannily it feels at times like looking at a fading photo from your childhood. Ash conveys beautifully the fraught relationship between young siblings – ‘I follow like there’s a little piece of string connecting us, and I got no choice but to go with the pull of it.’
Tom and Jordy are two brothers, dressed in school uniform and in a car with their mother, Loretta. To outsiders, there is nothing wrong here. But Loretta had abandoned them and now she’s back unexpectedly, taking them on a road trip away from the safety of their grandparents, whose doorstep she dumped them on and disappeared. The three make their way across the highways and roads, stealing from service stations until they arrive at a remote caravan ground among sand dunes and sun-bleached inhabitants on the west coast of Australia. With the flickering worry of Loretta disappearing for a second time, the boys are forced to rely on the kindness of a stranger who has warned them to stay away. The boys are isolated, without provisions, and much closer to danger than our young narrator Tom realises.
What is remarkable about this book, and demonstrates Ash’s incredible skill as a novelist, is the way she is simultaneously able to write often strikingly beautiful, evocative prose, but still remain ever-convincingly in the voice of a young child. Ash renders the endearing thoughts and imaginings of a boy wanting desperately to be grown up like his older brother but still young enough to be frightened of ‘the rustling of monsters out there,’ and give Sesame Street names to inanimate objects, ‘the car is yellow and rusted. I name it Bert in my head.’ Tom dawdles, meanders within himself, apologising to crabs for taking shells off the beach, counting desperately to one hundred in order to prevent himself from feeling scared. We hear his muddled discomforts and preoccupations – being thirsty, hungry, unable to get to sleep. Yet Ash is able to use the naivety of the childish voice for all its unaffected clarity of imagery: Tom says of walking out into the heat, ‘the sun gets me like the worst kind of hug,’ and, of catching a shark, ‘I try to grab the tail, but the tail is as difficult to grab as a hose turned on full.’ It is perhaps the innocence and sincerity of the voice that makes it beautiful; here, describing a lady who works at a bar,
She leans over the counter at me again. Her arms are crossed in a fleshy bow. I look up at her face. Her eyes are brown with chips of blue-green, a colour as strange as an opal. Pretty. I can’t look away. Looking into them eyes is like staring at the edge of a shimmering universe.
It is a brave decision by Ash to remain within the perspective of a young boy, as the reader is put in the potentially uncomfortable position of knowing more than the narrator. But, had it been written from the perspective of Loretta or the worrying grandparents it would not have been as affecting. Tom’s childish lack of awareness, and his innately trusting attitude toward his mother though she lacks any maternal instinct, positions the reader as a sort of protector. At a personal level I can attest that I almost read the entire novel in one sitting. The moment I put it down I worried immediately about those boys, I needed to know that they were ok. And so I read the final pages in single page installments, whenever I got the chance. I couldn’t leave them. Floundering provoked an irrational feeling in me, where as long as I was watching them they would be alright. The way Ash is able to make us as emotionally invested in these boys as she does is a testament to her skill.
There is a sort of claustrophobic intensity here – rather paradoxically for a novel set in the wide open spaces of the road and beach. Ash uses to great effect the confined spaces of a car and then a small caravan. But the real setting of the novel is the relationship between the two boys and an ambiguous adult, whether it be their mother Loretta or their reclusive caravan site neighbour, Nev.
The manuscript for Floundering was shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel Award last year and I have no doubt this will be the first of many literary nominations for this book. A beautiful, spare, affecting debut. Highly recommended.
Romy Ash’s Floundering is out now through Text. RRP $27.95
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