First published by Capital Letters on 4 June 2013
IT IS DIFFICULT to talk about Australian literature in 2013 and leave gender out of the conversation. Aside from the launch of the inaugural Stella Prize for women writers, the 2013 Miles Franklin Award is heralding an all-female shortlist for the first time in its 56-year history.
‘Revolution’ is perhaps too strong a word to describe this overdue recognition of Australian women and their way with words. ‘It’s just a bit of a shift in thinking,’ says Romy Ash, 2013 Miles Franklin nominee. And while she’s very happy to be part of it, she looks forward to a day when it’s no longer newsworthy.
In an ideal world gender wouldn’t be an issue, says Ash. But it still is an issue that people want to talk about. ‘I think the Stella Prize is great and I think we do need it. I really love the idea of giving Miles Franklin back part of her full feminine name. It’s a really lovely concept.’
It’s been a quite a year for Ash whose first novel, Floundering, it’s fair to say, is rocking awards season. It has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, the Commonwealth Book Prize, two Australian Book Industry Awards, longlisted for the Stella Prize and the Dobbie Literary Award, and has bagged the 31-year-old the title of Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist.
Awards season has given her book another life. ‘It’s really nice to be talking about a book again. It’s like your characters live again each time the book gets read.’
But why Floundering? What is it about this book that has garnered a red-carpet reception? Asked to put herself in the armchairs of the judges (a difficult task for modest Ash), she hazards a guess that it is the simplicity of the story that appeals to people. It occurs in one week (the first draft was set in just one day), mostly inside a car.
The tale of peril and negligence is made simpler still by the compelling voice of eleven-year-old narrator, Tom. There is a lot the adult reader understands which Tom himself does not – the writerly adage of ‘show don’t tell’ is demonstrated with painstaking caution from the book’s tense opening paragraphs until its hopeful end.
The narrative of Floundering places Tom and his brother Jordy in a world of uncertainty after being kidnapped by their mother Loretta, and taken to an isolated caravan park where she hopes to build a new life for them but falls repeatedly and heartbreakingly short.
The prose is elegant. It feels as though Ash and her editor have lovingly read every word, as though every adjective has been asked to defend its right to stay and not many made the cut. This has resulted in narration that is as powerful and sparse as the landscape in which it takes place.
It was the will of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin that to be nominated for this award, a book must represent Australian life and Floundering fits the bill. Ash gives us a relentless sun, puts us in a car where the backs of our thighs must be peeled from the seats, where the bottle of coke on the floor is as hot as tea and then drives us deep into the dust. It is a book that will make you thirsty.
‘The idea of heat is a really huge part of the book. I really wanted those boys to be in a perilous situation and the landscape is part of that… there’s no water. Water, food, shelter – these basic things are really at risk.’
When Ash was 20, she spent a year driving around Australia. She stayed in caravan parks just like the one in the book and met people living in strange and beautiful places, collecting their stories. ‘I just started imagining what may have drawn them to live in such isolation.’ Her relationship with landscape is rich and perceptive and she writes about it with reverence.
So it’s simple, it’s tense, it’s palpably Australian. What else?
Ash’s character development is just as it should be. It is a tireless quest for understanding, the effort of which is entirely concealed from the page. Bringing a character to life, says Ash, is a funny thing. ‘I got to a stage in writing… where my friends told me I’d begun to speak like Tom. I guess that illustrates the extent to which I had somehow immersed myself in the characters. I really was gone to another place.’
One of the great challenges of finishing the book, and one that Ash takes very seriously, has been the development of characters that are complex enough to empathise with, even when they do not-very-nice things. There is a commitment in the text to avoiding cookie-cutter ‘baddies’. The characters of Loretta and Ned could be portrayed respectively as a negligent mother and a man with a shady past who should not be left alone with children. But both are drawn so thoughtfully, so three-dimensionally that it’s difficult to condemn them.
And we return to the topic of gender; Ash has been struck by readers’ responses to Ned and Loretta. People tend to view Ned as a man who is trying to make a new life for himself and because he’s not malicious people understand his actions and have a lot of sympathy for him. Loretta on the other hand, doesn’t get off so easily. ‘People were horrified by Loretta’s actions. I’m horrified too but… I think readers judge a mother harshly.’ There is a note of concern in Ash’s voice for how Loretta might be handling it as she repeats this thought: ‘I think they judge her very harshly.’