Text Publishing, 2013
I really wanted to like this book. I heard Romy read some of her writing aloud at an event at the Melbourne Town Hall earlier this year and her story about a river, someone drowning in a river, was haunting and beautiful. If only my memory wasn’t so vague I’d link to it here.
So I was looking forward to reading her debut novel Floundering, especially as it was shortlisted for so many prizes (Miles Franklin Award 2013, Prime Minister’s Literary Award 2013, Commonwealth Book Prize 2013, etc).
‘Tom and Jordy live with their gran. Their mum, Loretta, left them on her doorstep.
Now she wants her boys back.
Tom and Jordy hit the road with Loretta in her beat-up car. They journey across the country, squabbling, bonding, searching and reconnecting.
On the west coast they stop. They take refuge in a beachside caravan park where, at last, the reality of the situation sets in. And now the boys find they have new threats and new fears to face.’
Unfortunately though, the book just didn’t do it for me. And it wasn’t the dark themes or depressing storyline that put me off, but the writing. I didn’t get a clear image of Tom, the point-of-view child character, until much too far into the book. I found he had an inconsistent voice, alternating ‘piss’ and ‘wee’, holding hands with his mum but swearing at his brother, scared of monsters but coming out with literary phrases like ‘he gives me a slippery smile’ and ‘there’s shiny teeth in her grin’. His grammar alternated between ‘Loretta doesn’t ring Gran’ and ‘Loretta don’t let us call her ‘mum’’, while describing characters as ‘slim’ and sunburn as ‘blooming’, which to me doesn’t ring true for a pre-pubescent boy. I had no idea of his age until he described his 11th birthday cake. Perhaps this inconsistency is intentional—Tom is bridging the cusp between childhood innocence and imitating his more worldly 13-year-old brother—but to me it was inauthentic and unclear.
The overwhelmingly descriptive writing style intrigued me at first, pulling me deep into that hot, sticky, smelly, uncomfortable roadtrip across Australia. I felt the Twisties powder on my fingers, tasted the Coke that was as hot as tea, and was disgusted at the service station meat pie that had pastry like flakes of skin. I understand the reason for this writing—the poor kid’s world is reduced to the inside of this car, against his will, so much of the story is told through intense descriptions of his immediate surroundings.
Some of it I loved:
‘The lemonade dries and sticks my legs together and to the seat. Then dirt sticks to the lemonade. I try and shuffle out of the lemonade patch, but my skin’s already sticky and there’s no shuffling out of my skin.’
‘The seat is rough against my cheek. It smells of off orange juice—like a school bag.’
But some of it drove me mad.
‘My school bag is squashed under Jordy’s seat. I pull it out. The zip makes that zip sound.’
Seriously? The zip makes that zip sound? Is that really necessary? I found myself walking around with this sentence rhythm in my head, narrating my every move like Tom would. ‘My tea is cold. I stand up. I stub my toe. It makes a stubbing sound.’ I drove myself mad.
I was hoping by the time they got to their destination, something would start happening. And it sort of did, but not really— all the action was dreamlike (the shark, the run-ins with Nev, the search for Loretta in the dust storm) and a bit unbelievable. The atmosphere remained hot and uncomfortable and boring and for the boys the days went slowly, and for me, unfortunately, the book went slowly.