Romy Ash’s Floundering comes shortlisted for what must be just about every Australian literary prize there is, including the Miles Franklin Award which most of us literary poms have heard of. Aside from Tim Winton and Peter Carey, I don’t read much Australian fiction mainly, I suspect, because not much is published in the UK but that may change as this is the first book from the antipodean Text Publishing to be distributed here. If Floundering is a taste of what’s available their books are well worth seeking out, particularly as this one’s published straight into affordable paperback. It’s described in the press release as ‘powerful debut fiction’, a phrase which sets my sceptic antenna twitching – are they ever anything else? – but this one lives up to its description.
It begins as a road trip. Loretta swings by her parents’ home to pick up her two sons, Tom and Jordy, who she’d left on their doorstep a year ago because ‘things just got complicated’. They get in her car, not quite knowing what’s in store, and she drives off with not a word to their Gran and Pa. They’re on the road for days: what’s needed along the way is shoplifted; they sleep in the car; the heat is suffocating; insects bite mercilessly but Tom, who narrates the novel, manages to remain cheerful although increasingly uneasy and at times downright scared. His initial acceptance gives way to a terrible worry – where will he pee, what will they eat, where will they sleep. He and his older brother Jordy bicker while Loretta – never to be called Mum – chivvies them, often hung over, sometimes drinking at the wheel. They finally arrive at a campsite where Loretta slowly unravels, the heat bounces off everything and their next door neighbour Nev, can’t stand to have little boys around. Things go from bad to worse.
Through Tom’s voice, Ash manages to capture the panicky fear of an eleven-year-old boy unsure of what his increasingly chaotic and unpredictable mother will do next. Her writing is clean and crisp, punctuated with images made all the more striking for that. The all-pervasive heat of the Australian west coast is palpable, and if at first the reason for Nev’s surliness seems a little predictable, Ash handles it well enough to avoid hackneyed cliché. It really is a powerful debut and it had me gripped to the end, dreading what horrors Tom and Jordy were about to meet.