Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 9, 2013

Floundering, by Romy Ash

Floundering2013 Miles FranklinI couldn’t find much online about Romy Ash’s debut novel Floundering, so it’s a pity I have to take issue with Tony Birch’s 2012 interview with the author. He comments that

Floundering is a novel raising difficult issues. How can we best care for children in our society? And who is best placed to make such decisions? During a year that celebrates the life of one of the great writers in English, Charles Dickens, contemporary authors continue to address issues similar to those he was concerned with in mid-Victorian Britain; inequality, the marginalised and the vulnerable, particularly children. If Dickens were writing in the early twenty-first century I believe he would write a book dealing with the themes of this one. This does not indicate that Romy Ash’s writing is in any way dated. Far from it. The story she tells is at the cutting edge of contemporary social issues.

Well, maybe.  I think that’s a bit ambitious for this short novel.   It could potentially have tackled the vexed issue of bad parenting,  but it doesn’t, it merely describes an episode of its effects, and then only from the naïve perspective of a school-age child.  The plot consists of the bad parent removing the children from the stability of their grandparents’ home, traipsing across the country to a coastal caravan park and then abandoning them.  There the boys face a predictable assortment of menacing perils exacerbated by feeble community intervention and the older boy’s fear of welfare policies.  Unlike Linda Olsson’s thoughtful book, The Kindness of Your Nature, (see my review) Floundering does not IMO ask questions about who should care for the children of dysfunctional parents, nor who should do the deciding.  The plot conveniently concludes with the children acquiring the wherewithal to make their own decision.

All over the modern world there are children from dysfunctional families doing it tough, but I really don’t think that it helps to spread disinformation about how the caring professions deal with it.

Jordy looks at me like I’ve betrayed something and my grin turns brittle.

You know what happens, he says.  They put you in a foster home.  We never see each other again and Loretta goes to jail.   (p. 150)

Pity is of no use to anyone but I do feel sorry for social workers who not only have to do a thankless task when they are under-resourced in societies too mean to provide adequate funding, but also have to put up with the assumptions that underlie the passage I’ve just quoted. What is worse, however, is that when this kind of disinformation prevails, people – especially children – who need help are too afraid to seek it.

While it is true that in extreme circumstances where a child’s safety is at risk and there is no other family member who can help, children are placed in foster care and since there is a shortage of foster parents willing to take more than one child, siblings can be separated though every effort is made to maintain contact between them.  But removal to a foster home and separation of siblings is not what happens in circumstances like the one depicted in this novel.

With a firm commitment to keeping families together whenever possible and to including children in decisions about their welfare [1], unless there are other complexities that aren’t part of this novel’s plot, it’s highly unlikely that a welfare authority would remove siblings from their grandparents’ well-ordered and loving home where – until they were ‘abducted’ by their mother – they were living and going to school.  It’s equally unlikely unless there is a criminal history that is not part of this novel’s characterisation that a dysfunctional parent like the character Loretta would go to gaol.  Women do not usually go to gaol in Australia for victimless crimes like prostitution or drug abuse or serial petty shop-lifting.

This child’s view of the world, however, is let stand in Floundering.

The book has been longlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin and was shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel Award, presumably because the judges admired the compelling voice of the younger boy and/or its grungy elements.  It is no coincidence that Birch admires Floundering because it has much in common with his own novel Blood. (See my review).  But whereas Birch’s child-narrator seizes the reader’s anguished admiration, the narration in Floundering is marked by whining and squabbling. Authentic, (most of the time), but tiresome for 200-odd pages.

Wanna play catch? I ask.
Yeah, nah, Jordy says.
I throw the ball from hand to hand.  Feel its rough fur.  I throw it gently at Jordy.  He doesn’t catch it but lets it land on him and roll off.  I get up, grab it, brush the sand off with my fingertips and throw it at him again.  He makes no motion to get it, and it rolls away again.
Why are you ignoring me? I say.
I’m not.
I throw the ball at him hard.  He doesn’t react, just holds the ball after it hits him, and doesn’t look at me.
Catch? I say. He doesn’t reply, holds on to the ball. I go sit back outside.  After ages he comes and sits outside too.
Stop scratching your bites, he says.
I’m not scratching them.
I pull the ball from his hand.  I throw it against the side of the caravan and it makes a bang that shakes salt and rust.  The ball rolls back towards my feet.  I throw it again.
You don’t want to play? I say to Jordy.  He rolls his eyes and sits down, hunches over his knees. I throw the ball at the caravan.
(p. 151)

Michelle Griffin at the SMH seems as underwhelmed as I am.  She finds it an ‘austere and elegant debut‘ and there’s ‘much to admire in Ash’s way with the boys’ churlish dialogue and mutual affection’ but ‘the narrative runs out of petrol as often as Loretta does’ and ‘an extended scene with a  captured gummy shark thrashes with a literary emphasis that seems a forced  fit’.

Sky Kirkham at the Australian Book Review saw unrealised potential too.  You can only read his review if you are a subscriber, but he summarises his thoughts by concluding ‘Despite the author’s evident skill, the novel fails to deliver on her clear potential’.

Bethanie Blanchard at Liticism sees this novel entirely differently, and her review offers reasons, perhaps, why the Miles Franklin judges were so impressed, so you should read it in its entirety.

Shambolic Living offers a perceptive review and sums up my feelings too.

Other reviews are at

  • LadyRedJess: it ‘didn’t leave me with a huge amount to think about’
  • Sian Campbell was impressed by the writing: ‘sympathy alongside desperation and curiosity that keeps us flipping the pages’
  • Bite the Bookdevastatingly amazing’

Nearly all of these reviews note similarities to recent books mining this theme – which is at risk of becoming clichéd.  Is it a staple in writing courses, Australian Realism 101 perhaps? See my reviews of Past the Shallows, Blood and Rocks in the Belly, click the title links).

***

I have spent far too long writing this review, longer than it took to read the book.  That’s because I found the book inadequate but didn’t really want to criticise the work of a young writer at the beginning of her career.   I had noted the book when it was released and dismissed its subject matter as not of any interest to me, but felt I had to read the novel when it made the Miles Franklin longlist.

Floundering is a promising debut, but IMO it is nonsense to suggest that Floundering is a book of the highest literary merit.  Longlisting it does the Miles Franklin judges no credit, especially when there are books much more deserving, (Whisky Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith and Lost Voices by Christopher Koch to name just two).  Longlisting a debut novel that shows potential exposes the book to the remorseless glare of critics expecting far more than it can deliver, and it is not fair to an emerging author.

The Miles Franklin is our most prestigious literary award.  It is the only award in Australia that people really care about, and it’s not because of the money, it’s because it’s supposed to showcase the very best of our contemporary literature.  IMO our judges need the courage to hold fast to this principle, and stop using longlists as encouragement awards, inclusivity opportunities or consolation prizes for authors who missed out in previous years.  If in some years longlists need to be short in order to guarantee that every book conforms to the principle of excellence, so be it.  In the 21st century the online world watches award nominations to explore our very best and it is unfair to Australian authors and publishers to compromise impressions about what we think excellence might be.

[1] There is not a welfare authority in Australia that doesn’t have a ‘best interests of the child’ principle and that doesn’t endorse the principle of fostering child participation in decision making

Legislation in all Australian jurisdictions endorses the importance of involving children and young people in decision-making (to the extent that their age and maturity enables) and to consult and seek the views of children on issues affecting their lives. To illustrate, Section 8(3) of the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1997 (TAS) states “in any exercise of powers under this Act in relation to a child, if a child is able to form and express views as to his or her ongoing care and protection, those views must be sought and given serious consideration, taking into account the child’s age and maturity.”

Australian Institute of Family Studies 2009

Author: Romy Ash
Title: Floundering
Publisher: Text Publishing 2012
ISBN: 9781921922084
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Fishpond: Floundering


Responses

  1. ‘IMO our judges need the courage to hold fast to this principle, and stop using longlists as encouragement awards, inclusivity opportunities or consolation prizes for authors who missed out in previous years’ – controversial, but true, Lisa. I think one of the issues with literary prizes in general is a lack of clarity about what judges actually are looking for. Madeleine Thien wrote an excellent piece about this: http://arts.nationalpost.com/2013/03/12/madeleine-thien-on-transparency/

    • You’re right, that is an excellent piece, and it I find it especially interesting because the Shadow Giller Prize (the inspiration for the Shadow Man Asian and Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize juries that I’ve served on) makes a point of transparency when it makes its choice. If you look at how all these Shadow Juries work (all of them web-based) all of them make the jurors reviews transparent on their blogs. You can read all my reviews for the Shadow Jury’s nominations, and you can read the reviews of the other jurors too. Our thoughts are out there on the web and any reader can join in a conversation about them. I am, this afternoon, writing my review of Christopher Koch’s brilliant Lost Voices and wondering why, how, it was not shortlisted. I want to know why IMO some rather ordinary books were shortlisted instead of your Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. Maybe there are flaws I haven’t discerned in the ones not included, maybe there are qualities I missed in the ones I think are ordinary. But as Madeleine Thien says, the very people who have (we assume) read all the books are silent. Perhaps it is too big an ask to expect jurors to write reviews of perhaps hundreds of books, I don’t even know if these jurors are paid for their time. But I would have thought that jurors would be selected because they already read a great many of the eligible books and are experienced at reviewing… Lisa

      • That is another question, sin’t it – how jurors are selected. On one hand I can see that asking jurors to write reviews might be a big ask. On the other hand, publishing even a few thoughts on what made a book stand out for them shouldn’t be too hard, given that they must surely make notes or even write reports? otherwise, how are they judging so many books? On their gut responses?

        PS Thank you for your kind words about WCF.

        • Well exactly. I mean, I’ve been on selection panels for staff and we have a sort of chart where we score criteria and then tally, and of course we make notes on the applications at home so that we can discuss them in detail. And I’m talking 100s of applications, and no time off from other work responsibilities to do it.

  2. Thanks for your honest review Lisa. It can be hard to write critical reviews sometimes but if people weren’t prepared to be honest then review process wouldn’t be robust – and then what would the point be? Regarding awards – I just don’t understand (going off topic now to the Orange Prize) how it is that no new writers made the shortlist this year (correct me if I’m wrong!). And loads of discussions around “so and so didn’t get short listed last year so she was always going to get in this year…” and “so and so can’t win because she’s already taken all three top prizes this year…” And it definitely makes you wonder about the politics…

    • Hello Nadine, great to hear from you:)
      It is hard sometimes. I don’t want to hurt an author’s feelings though I know that of course, it must. But I also want readers to trust me, and I’ve promised them on my About Page to give them my honest opinion. I don’t think this blog would have the readership that it has, if I didn’t keep faith with that undertaking.
      What helps is that I’m pretty good at sifting what’s on offer, and most of my reviews are positive because (like most other readers) I choose to read books that I expect to like and admire. I say no to offers of books that just don’t appeal to me. But every now and again – because readers of this blog have expectations of me now – I get caught up in shadow juries and must-read shortlists, and I end up ‘having to’ read something that I wouldn’t have bothered with in other circumstances. That’s what happened with this book. I saw commentary about it everywhere, but I’m tired of this overworked subject matter and I want more from the books I read than twanging on the heartstrings. But it was nominated for the MF, and people expect me to read and review the nominations. (You may have noticed that there’s still one book I haven’t reviewed. I was leaving it till last and *wry smile* I was rather relieved when it wasn’t shortlisted because now *phew* I don’t have to read it.)
      When I’m in this situation, I always ask myself, what is it that others saw in this book that I can’t see makes it award-worthy, and as you can see from this review, I spend time hunting around the web to see what other reviewers think too. It’s a relief to me when I find other reviewers with similar doubts to mine, but I do my best to find a range of opinions. I think that’s fair to the author and to my readers.
      As to the Women’s/Orange Prize, I think this year’s list with a couple of exceptions is the most uninspiring collection of overhyped books ever. I doubt if it does anything to entice people to read the books, and it doesn’t do anything at all to promote the cause of women’s writing.

      • Well, in a way we are coming full circle to what you were discussing with Annabel – the integrity of literary awards and whether or not we can place our faith in them. I was looking at some statistics released by GR about the key factor influencing a person’s decision to read or not read a particular book, and the one that surpasses all is “whether or not a trusted friend recommends it.” This is definitely true in my case. Where a few years ago I might have bought the Booker Prize winner without even reading the back cover, now I would check out the reviews of a few key people I trust first (made all that much easier now thanks to GR ensuring that the reviews of people I follow are listed at the top of any book I am looking at).

        But it does bother me – this sense that maybe literary awards is more about politics than merit. Actually, if it weren’t for you and Annabel discussing transparency above (and you outlining how shadow juries operate) I might not have been able to put my finger on it. Why can’t we know what factors have influenced jurors in the making of their decision? Why not? Too busy to write long reviews – get people who have time! I heard somewhere that often juries become factionalised, split 50/50 on a book, and instead of choosing one or the other, they “compromise” and give the award to a third, outside runner. This may be a dirty rumor but without any transparency how would we know?

        In the context of this discussion I was interested to see that the Vogel wasn’t awarded to anyone this year – The Judge said (http://www.booksellerandpublisher.com.au/DetailPage.aspx?type=item&id=27015) ” The most important factor underlying this decision is the integrity of the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, the most significant award in this country for younger Australian authors,’ said Williamson. ‘The judges agreed that it would damage the award if we picked a winner simply because a winner had to be picked: readers can sniff out a compromise in an instant, and we need them to trust that the prize will do what it has always done: find the best work written by emerging authors.’

        And I wanted to cheer “Here here!”

        • Yes, that was a very controversial decision about the Vogel but I respect it in a way. I also love Goodreads for the same reason. I am much more likely to trust the opinion of someone who I know shares my taste than the PR machine of a publisher.

          • Annabel, good on those judges, I say. That’s the kind of courage I want them to have. Australian literature doesn’t have a high profile internationally, and our prizes are not going to be taken seriously unless we start looking at our literature in the context of international standards. We do, Nadine, need that transparency, and we need to get the politics out of the whole process. And one other thing, if people are going to comment about what Miles Franklin would have thought about this and that, they really ought to read Jill Roe’s biography first!

  3. […] Lisa mentioned in her review of the novel, Floundering is the latest in a long line of Australian novels that deal with […]

  4. […] of being separated from her brother if social welfare services get involved is realistic too, but unlike other novels peddling disinformation in this genre, Spargo-Ryan has delivered an unsentimental resolution which shows the complexities faced by the […]


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