Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 8, 2018

Incredible Floridas, by Stephen Orr #BookReview

Stephen Orr is one of my favourite authors, and I have read (and reviewed) all of his fiction except for his debut novel Attempts to Draw Jesus (2002) which I have yet to find.  Although each book he writes takes us into a different Australian landscape, there are common themes:  a nostalgia for the intimacy and eccentricities of suburban life as his generation lived it in the 1960s and 70s; a preoccupation with the relationship between father-figures and sons; and the impositions of parental ambition on the next generation.

Where The Hands, an Australian Pastoral (2015) focussed on the intergenerational inheritance issues of a hard-scrabble farming family, Incredible Floridas revisits the theme of Dissonance (2012) which explored the conflicts between creative ambition and normal family life.  And whereas Dissonance is loosely based on the life of the composer Percy Grainger, for Incredible Floridas Orr has chosen a well-known Australian painter as the inspiration for his central character Roland Griffin.  By the descriptions of the artworks and the workings of Roland’s imagination, the reader can see that Roland is loosely modelled on Russell Drysdale (1912-1981).  Similarly caught in the cross-currents of post-war art, Roland finds that his landscapes with iconic figures of Indigenous people and outback battlers are being displaced by abstractionism, and at the same time in the State Gallery of SA he is disappointed by the classical paintings on display because they’re not about Australian life. Galleries have bought Roland’s paintings but no longer hang them, and the Archibald Prize rejects his latest work.  Nevertheless, in the middle of the catastrophic drought during the war years Roland takes his family into the devastated ghost towns of the interior and sketches the people doing it tough in what’s left of the towns.  He admires the optimism of the people who are hanging on and he believes passionately that he has something to contribute to urban people who know nothing of the hardships of people on the land.

But the novel is not primarily about the travails of an artist’s life.  It is more about a man whose son has committed suicide, and the inevitable guilt and what-ifs that ensue.  In some ways it is similar to Time’s Long Ruin (2010) which tackled the aftermath of a disappearance reminiscent of the disappearance of the Beaumont Children in 1966.  Incredible Floridas also explores what I described in my review as the endless, hopeless swirl of thoughts about who, and how, and why.   The guilt about what could have been prevented, about anger and discipline and careless words, the anguished recollection of unkind acts and sins of omission that all parents inevitably commit.  But in this novel, things are more complex.  It is not a case of innocents stolen away by someone evil.   Roland’s son Hal is a very difficult child indeed and he drives everyone to distraction: his parents, his sister Sonia, his neighbours, his teachers and the other children in his neighbourhood.  It is not until his late adolescence that his problems are finally recognised and diagnosed and the reader knows from the beginning of the book that it was too late by then.

The novel begins in 1962 when the tragedy has just occurred, and the rest of the novel traces events from 1944 onwards as Roland Griffin reflects on his priorities – his art, and fatherhood.  So the tone is melancholy and nostalgic, but not grim.  Memories are the everyday stuff of family life, delivered in fractured dialogue, seguing from one scene to another as Hal’s life unfolds.  Like his namesake in Hamlet, Hal is tormented by personal demons that he does not understand but unlike Hamlet he is not fatherless.  His father is often psychologically absent because Roland Griffin is preoccupied by his art, but he’s not a bad father: he just can’t sustain being there for this most difficult child when he needs to be making his living with his art.  He is out of his depth, trying to deal with Hal’s irrational outbursts of increasing savagery.  A fight at school puts a boy in hospital; he sets off fireworks on the dance floor at a Legacy dance.

His parents blame the brutal honesty of other children who know Hal is not normal, they blame the inadequacies of the school and they blame themselves.  They try to protect Hal from the consequences of his thieving and violence, and there is also kindness and understanding from their neighbour Sam and his grandmother Nan.  But as Hal’s behaviours escalate their marriage comes under increasing strain while also impacting on their daughter Sonia.  The novel shows the strain of a past era when women looked to men to be providers:

This was the problem with wives, Roland guessed.  They had no intention of letting a man return to his childhood, which, it seemed to him, was the only place wroth returning to.  They wanted them working, earning, saying sensible things, not painting, dreaming away the days, making unfunny jokes and buying ruined buildings in ghost towns.  Men had to be made sensible.  (p.140)

The title is, I think, an allusion to a poem called Le Bateau Ivre (The Drunken Boat) by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), who influenced the development of surrealism.  The poem describes a poet trying to spread harmony and understanding through the visions of a boat lost at sea and the disillusionment when the spell breaks and there is only a sense of failure and imprisonment.

I struck against, you know, unbelievable Floridas
Mingling with flowers panthers’ eyes and human
Skin! Rainbows stretched like bridal reins
Under the horizon of the seas to greenish herds!

(Arthur Rimbaud, “The Drunken Boat” from Complete Works, Selected Letters, translated by Wallace Fowlie. Copyright © 2005 by Wallace Fowlie.  Reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press at The Poetry Foundation. )

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: Incredible Floridas
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743055076
Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: Incredible Floridas

 


Responses

  1. I can’t wait to get to this, and hope to do so by March. I’ll come back then to read and comment properly.

    • I look forward to your review. There is so much to think and talk about with this book!

  2. I haven’t read any Orr but I’m tempted to start here*… unless you suggest otherwise.

    *As part of my studies, I have spent a fair amount of time on understanding suicide and suicide ideation – you mention that the character Hal is a difficult child, which would certainly add a layer of complexity to the emotions that Orr would have to navigate.

    • Yes, absolutely. And (re-reading some parts of the book sometimes) I was watching the text closely to see how far he tries to get inside Hal’s head, because that is so problematic for an author. I mean, even psychiatrists can’t do it. But I think Orr successfully treads a fine line between the parents’ emerging perceptions of what’s going on, that is, observed behaviours and their own responses and those of others, and Hal’s perceptions of his world. Hal’s perceptions occur less often and they are fragmentary because the focus of the book is on the parents’ grief, guilt, bewilderment, and attempts to understand someone that cannot really be understood. For most of the book the reader thinks that this problem may be something fairly common and often reasonably manageable (like autism, for example) but towards the end of the book we learn that there are symptoms of something more serious. And of course we are aware that treatment of mental illness was very different in the 1960s…

  3. I think I’d like this one. I read One Boy Missing from this author.

    • I’m glad he’s starting to have an international reach… I believe that at least one of his books has been translated:)

  4. […] Lisa (ANZlitLovers) is also a Stephen Orr fan and enjoyed this book. […]


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