Book reviews

Infinite Splendours is Australian author Sofie Laguna’s most recent novel (published in 2020).

I’ve previously read The Choke and The Eye of the Sheep by this author. Both told the story of a child or teenager living in very difficult family circumstances.

Infinite Splendours also began with a child as the main character, although this story took on a different direction to The Choke and The Eye of the Sheep by continuing to following Lawrence’s story until he reached middle age, showing how the traumatic events of his childhood affected the rest of his life.

Lawrence and his brother Paul grew up on a 40-acre property at the bottom of a mountain in the Southern Grampians, near Hamilton in Victoria. The small town they lived in, Hughton and their mountain, Mount Wallis were fictional, but as I read I was reminded of Mount Sturgeon which looms above the small town of Dunkeld in the Southern Grampians. I feel sure that Dunkeld and Mount Sturgeon inspired the locations for the book.

The boy’s father died in World War Two and they were raised by their mother, who sadly wasn’t the only war widow in the district. The boys always called her ‘Mother’, never ‘Mum’ or ‘Ma’. Their mother never showed Lawrence or Paul that she loved them in either her words or by physical affection, nor did they often receive praise, although she was proud of Lawrence’s academic achievements. In return, Lawrence and Paul’s behaviour was unfailingly formal, respectful and polite towards their mother.

Despite their mother’s lack of affection towards them, Lawrence and Paul were very fond of each other, and both were caring, kind children.

Lawrence and Paul were quite different to each other in their interests and abilities. Paul was a good sportsman who was mechanically-minded, while Lawrence was an academic and a naturally gifted artist. Lawrence’s school teacher recognised his talent from an early age and encouraged him to draw and paint, although his mother did not value his art.

Their mother worked hard and provided for the family but she saved all of her love for her brother Reggie, who hadn’t been seen since they were teenagers.

When their uncle wrote to say he was coming for a visit, their mother was overjoyed. Lawrence was pleased too, although Paul was not, perhaps sensing that their uncle would come between him and his brother.

Lawrence took to Uncle from the beginning and trusted and liked him. Paul, who had more street-smarts than Lawrence, did not. Uncle groomed Lawrence with attention and presents, and eventually raped him before leaving the district the next morning. Paul guessed at what had been done to Lawrence by Uncle but by then the damage was done. Lawrence suffered a nervous breakdown while Mother was none the wiser as to what had taken place.

Lawrence grew up to be a stammering wreck of a man who suffered physically and emotionally for the rest of his life. He pushed Paul away and was unable to form relationships with other adults. For a short while Lawrence worked at a dairy in nearby Hamilton but left even that after he was beaten up by his co-workers who were suspicious about the nature of his friendship with one of their young sons. By this time Paul had moved into town, leaving Lawrence alone on the property after their mother’s death.

The story then jumped ahead many years to find Lawrence a middle-aged man, still living in isolation on the family property and dependent on Paul for his food and art supplies. Lawrence had spent his years painting Mount Wallis and his immediate surroundings. He was content and nothing would have changed in his future except that a noisy young family moved into the long-vacant house next door to his, shattering his peace.

I didn’t enjoy Infinite Splendours as much as I have Sofia Launa’s other books, because the subject matter made this a particularly difficult read. I hated that Lawrence was abused as a boy and throughout the second part of this story, felt increasingly horrified and distressed wondering if Lawrence as an adult might do the same thing to another child. The question of whether predatory behaviour by adult men towards children is a result of their own childhood experiences and how much sympathy we should feel towards men in this situation loomed uncomfortably over the story, too.

I’ve written and rewritten that last sentence. Is the answer some, or none? I can’t decide. If I feel sympathy for a predator who was a victim himself does that make me a monster too? Feeling no sympathy for a victim whose learned behaviour made him a possible predator seems wrong, but so does feeling sympathy towards him.

While I felt angry that Lawrence was the victim of a predator, I also (and I acknowledge that this is completely unfair) felt annoyed that this was the story of a male victim when so many girls are victims too. I suppose the difference is that female victims of abuse generally don’t seem to perpetuate the abuse they received when they become adults, which means that this story had to be about a boy.

As per all of Sofia Laguna’s books, I loved her actual writing style and felt very connected to the Southern Grampians setting. I also enjoyed reading about Lawrence’s art and appreciated the ongoing joy he received when looking through a book depicting the work of the world’s greatest artists.

My purchase of Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna continues to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (September).

Comments on: "Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna" (13)

  1. Plenty to think about here, Rose. Such a difficult and emotive subject.

    • I think this author chooses difficult subjects. I don’t think her books are for everyone but it is one way to highlight issues that should be discussed. There was a lot to think about in all of them.

  2. Great review Rose and you do raise some valid questions. I would definitely feel sympathy towards a person who has been a abused as a child, but I would never see it as an excuse for their behaviour. We all have a choice, after all! Not sure, the victim being male would bother me. That happens as well and it’s fair enough to have it represented it the literature. I do understand where you come from, though.

    • It was a very difficult topic and I’m sure the author struggled with how far to go with the story, how much to tell, when to hint at something and when to go no further.
      My feeling about the victim being male wasn’t at all fair, or rational. I was thinking about a female friend who had a difficult childhood when I was reading this story and how she was expected just to get on with life as an adult. Not that it makes any difference whether a victim is male or female, but there seems to be so much sympathy for male victims of systematic abuse by people in organisations, while there are so, so many female victims of individuals who are hidden from public view.
      The story is well worth reading and shines a light on a topic that should be better addressed though.

      • That is the thing with books (and everything else I suppose); the way we assess them is highly dependent on our own background and experience. I do understand what you say about male and female victims being treated differently and of course that doesn’t seem right.

  3. This sounds really heartbreaking. I think you raise an interesting question as to how much sympathy we should feel toward victims who go on to perpetrate abuse against others. The abuse they experience is heartbreaking but, as you point out, that doesn’t mean they have no choice but to abuse others. Those chains of abuse are so hard to break though.

    • There are so many things I do because that was how they were done in my family. Happily for most of us our learned behaviour are okay to be continued.
      I made a conscious decision not to smack my children though, since I had been belted as a child (because my father had been belted when he was a child) but no doubt I made other mistakes as a parent that will follow through into another generation.

      • Yes! For me, becoming a parent really made me think about why I do things and whether I’m doing them because I want to or just because that’s how my parents did it.

  4. I’m not so sure that abused girls don’t repeat behaviour into adulthood too – not so much by becoming abusers themselves, but by standing silent while men abuse their children, as their mothers (or guardians) did while they were abused. It is a difficult question for sure – I do have some sympathy for victims who become abusers, but not much. As Stargazer says, we can all make our own choices in life.
    I always enjoy seeing all the Scottish place names popping up in Australian lit – Dunkeld, the Grampians, etc. Clearly Scottish settlers didn’t have much imagination when it came to naming things! 😉

    • That is true. Abused girls often do repeat certain behaviours which then perpetuate the cycle.
      I never think about ‘our’ place names having been named for other places in the world, but you can tell who settled where in Australia. Happily, there is a recent trend to change names back to the traditional Indigenous names.

  5. I haven’t read your review Rose but will try to come back to it soon, as my reading group is doing this at the end of the month. I’m looking forward to it, though I know it is tough.

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