Author Romy Ash means to break your heart in Floundering.
A year ago, Loretta left her sons, Jordy and Tom, at their grandparents' house and disappeared. Now she's back. She piles the boys into a rust-bucket car and heads west. It's a loving but hopeless abduction. Loretta has no money and she has no plan, other than to get across the country to a remote caravan park on the West Australian coast, where most of this harrowing novel unfolds.
Floundering tells a simple story with just a handful of characters, no subplots, a minimum of backstory and no sentimentality. But within just a few pages, it's clear that this tough, concentrated first novel means to break your heart, and there's not much you're going to be able to do about it. Each page is soaked in the propellant of readerly anxiety: we simply need to know, despite everything, that the boys will be OK.
The story is told by Tom, an 11-year-old who experiences the world in a rush of images and physical sensation. This kid is a first-class noticer, and his voice is an impressive technical and imaginative feat that drags us into the stink and squalor of the road trip with the fugitives as they live off soggy chips and stolen lollies and sleep on a back seat that ''smells of off orange juice - like a school bag''.
It's remarkable how much muffled lyricism Ash works into this child's impression of summer, and how deep into sense memory Tom takes us with sticky spilt soft drink, food residue and general dinginess. ''A fly goes straight up my nose and I have to snort it out. It drops halfway to the ground then keeps flying.''
Tom sees brilliantly, but understands poorly. His restricted view creates an air of claustrophobia and rising menace, a sense that something awful waits right at the edge of his vision. We sense Loretta falling apart in a series of fragments, glimpses of a broken woman desperately trying to cope. Much of the novel's power lies in all that we only half-see, in all the unexplained absences: the boys' father, the help this family desperately needs, and Loretta herself, who is soon missing again.
There is love here, among the stifling fug of unwashed kids and spoilt food, but it's not enough. Abandoned, stubbornly hopeful, Tom follows Jordy around as they wait for Loretta, ''like there's a little piece of string connecting us, and I got no choice but to go with the pull of it''. That's how the reader feels, too, helplessly chained to two sullen, undernourished kids.
With its air of coastal dereliction, its vast skies and bloody bait buckets, Floundering recalls the sense world of Tim Winton, but without the unexpected flashes of grandeur. Instead of a guardian angel, Jordy and Tom get Nev, owner of the caravan next door and another dangerously broken adult.
So when the boys rescue a small gummy shark trapped near the beach, the reader eagerly grasps this flicker of hope. Maybe the boys will care for the shark in a way that Loretta can't care for them? But the shark dies, which, in its refusal to provide anything as conventional as redemption, is entirely consistent with everything else. When they bury the shark, its rotten guts burst out all over Tom, adding to the fragrant impasto of filth he's already caked in.
It's a risk, this unrelenting grimness. And readers might give up if the story didn't feel so true, or if the boys weren't vividly alive. Floundering offers no lessons, but it does uncomfortably concentrate the mind on the limits of love and on the duty of care we all owe each other.