Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 224 pages; 2012.
Fishing for flounder in shallow coastal waters as the tide comes in is known as “floundering”, which explains the title of this extraordinary debut novel by Australian writer Romy Ash. But it’s also an apt description for what the characters in the story are doing for each is struggling to get by.
On the road
Floundering begins as a “road novel” when a pair of brothers — 11-year-old Tom, who narrates the story, and 13-year-old Jordy — are “kidnapped” from their Gran’s place, where they live, by their mother, Loretta, and driven across the country, from somewhere in the east, to the west coast of Western Australia.
Loretta doesn’t ring Gran until we are right across the border into the next state.
They’re with me, Mum. It’s fine.
I’ve got a hold of Loretta’s hand, and she’s keeping the glass door of the phone booth open with her sneaker. I can feel Loretta’s painted fingernails, two of them broken and sharp against my palm.
No, Mum, they’re my boys. I’m not having this conversation with you again. They’re my boys. I’ve got a place ready and everything. Please, Mum, she says. Don’t say that. I told you already. That’s why I’m ringing you now, Mum.
She’s leaning her head against the glass with the orange phone curled around her face.
After several stressful — and baking hot — days on the road, in which the boys continually squabble and Loretta struggles to maintain her new role of responsible parent, the trio arrive at their destination just a couple of days before Christmas.
They stay in a decrepit caravan right by the beach, the perfect place for the boys to play and swim and have fun — “It’s bloody paradise”, whoops Jordy — but it’s not exactly a happy “holiday”. There’s no water on site, which means they have to drive into town to get it from the local roadhouse, nor is there any electricity, and the bathroom comprises a communal corrugated iron shed in the dunes which houses a drop toilet.
Food is also in short supply, because Loretta has little or no money and doesn’t seem able to sort out regular meal times, let alone provide a proper diet — in one scene the boys have to eat sweetcorn cold out of a can because there’s nothing else and Tom constantly has “desert mouth” because there’s never anything to drink.
But there’s other, perhaps less obvious, dangers lurking too, mainly in the form of their neighbour, a strange old man called Nev, who says upfront that “I don’t like kids, best if they stay away” and yet seems unable to help himself from befriending them.
Young Tom’s voice
I loved this novel right from the start. I loved the quiet stillness in the writing and the polite, naive and occasionally troubled voice of young Tom. And I loved the evocative descriptions of travelling in a beat-up old car and the way in which the author expertly captures the initial excitement of the journey across country before the adventure descends into small moments of fear and trepidation.
I also loved the way she captured the boys’ changes in fortune, so that when they are eventually “settled” they begin to realise that life in a caravan is not much better than life on the road. In some ways it’s worse, because now the fun times have given way to a bitter reality.
It’s particularly heartbreaking to see life through Tom’s eyes, because as much as he loves his mother, he does not trust her. He continually fears the worst and worries about his Gran, whom he misses.
I wanted to reach into this novel, to protect both Tom and Jordy, to rescue them from a situation getting increasingly more desperate and grim. I often felt angry — and fearful — on their behalf. I hoped that both would begin to see that they now had to rely on themselves, not their wayward mother, to survive — and that penny-dropping moment arrives about midway through the novel when Tom almost drowns when out floundering but is rescued by his older brother:
Tom nearly drowned, says Jordy.
I couldn’t see any [flounders], she says.
You’re blinding me, he says.
She hangs the torch at the end of her hand lighting one little bit of sand. The torch is dull.
Not even one, she says.
Did you hear me? Tom nearly drowned.
I’m okay. I’m okay, I say.
You don’t even care, he says.
Come on, I’m tired, she says.
She walks away and we follow, the sand making white socks on my feet. It feels like a dream anyway.
The entire story is utterly believable — and so suspenseful I raced through it in a matter of days.
Floundering was shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, the Commonwealth Book Prize and the Australian Book Industry Awards Newcomer of the Year, amongst others. If you liked Schroder by Amity Gaige, you might like this one too.
This book has been published in the UK and US, so should be available to an international audience.