The Miles Franklin Award is being announced this week, and the last book I have to read on the shortlist is Romy Ash’s Floundering. It’s also been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize, was longlisted for the Stella Prize, and was just yesterday shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, so clearly some judges around the world are quite liking it.
As Lisa mentioned in her review of the novel, Floundering is the latest in a long line of Australian novels that deal with depressing stories about abandoned children going on their own journey into the wilderness—see, for example, Favel Parrett’s heartbreaking Past the Shallows, and Patrick Holland’s depressing The Mark Smokes Boys. I loved both of those books, so I went into Floundering read to be amazed, and to need a box of tissues at the end.
Whisked away from the comfort of their grandparents’ house, Tom and Jordy find themselves on a road trip to the coast with their mother—the mother they last saw a year ago when she dropped them off without so much as a goodbye.
In many ways, Floundering acts as the mirror image of Past the Shallows. While Parrett focuses on the absence of a mother, Ash explores what it is like to have a mother, but one that is wholly unsuited to the job. Make no mistake, Loretta seems to (mostly) care for her two sons, but for whatever reason—wisely left unsaid by Ash—she cannot make the connection between emotional caring and actual parenting. Too caught up in her own issues, she cannot see what she is doing to slowly destroy the lives of her sons.
I’ve made clear before my feelings about child narrators, but fortunately, Tom never seems annoying, whiny or precocious. He reacts to the world around him in a depressing realistic way: his inability to understand what is going on around him, particularly when it comes to his mother, is palpable. In the first part in particular, his innocent willingness to believe his mother is back for good hits you right in the gut.
Sadly, the second half of the novel is not quite as good as the first. Loretta once again runs out on her sons, leaving them to their own devices in a rundown caravan park. Though they wander aimlessly through other families’ Christmas and New Year celebrations, they survive off the few cans of cold baked beans and the slowly emptying container of fresh water. In an attempt to find their mother, they hitch a ride with the dodgy man.
Unlike Parrett or Holland, Ash doesn’t feel the need to crush her readers with an ending that is horrendously bleak, though she would easily be forgiven had she chosen to. Turning convention in its head, Tom and Jordy reach out to find help. It’s a subtle reversal, but it’s nice not to need counselling after finishing a novel of this kind.
Floundering close to being perfect. Though the genre Ash works in is hardly new or revolutionary, the first half hits all the right notes, and elicits a deep, emotional response. Though the second half doesn’t quite live up to the promise, Floundering marks Romy Ash out as a writer to watch.