Melbourne-based author Romy Ash has produced a debut novel that deserved its place in last year's Australian/Vogel Literary Award shortlist. Floundering is an utterly terrific read: suspenseful, poignant, haunting.
After dumping her children, Tom and Jordy, on their grandmother's doorstep, Loretta gets them back without warning and takes them on a bewildering road trip. They eventually stop at a caravan park on the west coast where every sense as a reader is heightened.
This is a novel that tempts you from the very first line - "I have that itchy skin feeling that someone is watching us" - and secures your interest within the first few pages. The dialogue is sharp. We are looking at events, landscapes, the past and other people through the disorientated, suspicious point of view of Tom, the younger son. He is fragile, tough, curious and smart. I wanted to hug him close and keep him safe.
Ash's writing serves both the story and the character development without a hint of flab. Sentences cut to the bone of a setting so the reader is in the grip of the heat with the dust on their tongue. You taste the cold spaghetti (Loretta's feeble attempt at mothering) and feel your skin grow hot and sticky.
The realness of the world and the way the characters matter to such a degree is a tribute to the craft of the writer, but the strength of the novel is in the astringent mix of pathos and suspense.
Seeing things through Tom's eyes means our reading is filtered through a character who wants good. He cares about all living things. He leaves a dead shark to rot in the caravan after his mad attempt to save it.
Nonetheless, it is hard work for Tom to hold on to the good in things with constant squabbling and conflict within the family and threats and challenges from outside. Jordy is mean to him from the start - making the rules and bending the rules to suit him.
Loretta longs to be a mother, but it seems her children are a precious idea impossible for her to maintain.
Nev lives in the caravan opposite and adds a further edge to the story. He hates children and is gruff and altogether scary.
Ash builds a deft pace (heart in your mouth reading), but what I loved more than anything was the way she found pathways out of the dark and the dreadful to places of redemption. Highly recommended.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.