This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.
Not everyone has had close contact with a story like this, but even for those of us who haven’t, in an age where tabloid journalism regularly plumbs the rich depths of suburban decay, its like cannot be far from our minds. Two young boys, the narrator Tom and his older brother Jordy, walking home from school, are invited by their mother into a car. Only once the car is on the road does it sink in that their mother has been gone a long time, and this invitation, taken in a different light, has the character of an abduction.
Floundering, covering just a small breadth of time and told through Tom’s eyes, follows the attempt of a woman to reclaim her children, and it hinges on the inability of those two boys to quite understand or negotiate not only the world of unreliable, damaged adults, but also the incomprehensible tug-of-war they feel between love for their mother and mistrust of her.
Romy Ash’s decision to use a young boy as her narrator, as opposed to telling this story in the third person, was genius, because what an impossible prism a child’s view of the world could present. She has managed to use Tom’s mind for the best of its aspects – a child’s innocence, vulnerability, guilelessness and lack of comprehension. In Tom’s voice, Ash describes what is taking place matter-of-factly, whilst still painting vivid, infinitely empathetic adult characters, never inauthentically becoming authorial along the way. And the two central adult characters are something to behold.
Loretta, as she insists on being called, is a woman seeking something. The love of her children, the bottom of a bottle, a stability in care or abandon in carelessness that frees her from whatever curse of disposition has plagued her her entire life. Some may read this book and think her a villain, and they would be wrong. Loretta is fighting tooth and nail, and it seems at times simply unfortunate that in this peak or trough she sweeps Tom and Jordy into that fight. And when Loretta brings them to rest at a caravan park, the presence of Nev, a child sex offender in adjacent caravan who has sought respite from his condition via self-exclusion, is another tremendously nuanced, tense and sympathetic bit of writing.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the character of their journey, Tom’s and Jordy’s that is; its pungency, thirst and starvation is visceral. As Loretta begins to dehydrate and malnourish the boys with soft drink and gas station food, not even noticing as they burn and shrink, unwashed for days in a car in the middle of summer, you, the reader, can feel the gunk sticking to the roofs of their mouths.
The brevity of Floundering, in its word count as well as its timespan, is one of its greatest assets. I read it in half a day. And this is perfect. The hinging of this book on the relationship between two young boys plants it firmly in a place where the reader’s patience could begin to be tried. The boys kick, gripe, bully, whine and do foolish things the way all children do, and Tom lays this out with the infuriating un-self-aware confidence of a child. While it all seems perfectly true, Ash calls things expertly to a close before their immaturity can begin to grate, or more accurately before the strain you feel at their total ill-suitedness to this genuinely dangerous situation can become truly harrowing.
It’s coming up on four years since this novel was published. Here’s hoping it isn’t long before Ash reveals whatever she’s been working on in the interim. Whatever it is, it has to be excellent.