Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Laguna – Sofie’ Category

Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna

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).

The Choke by Sofie Laguna

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Australian author Sofie Laguna knows how to pull on my heartstrings. The Eye of the Sheep, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award was excellent, but I think The Choke is even better.

The Choke is a place, a narrow spot on the Murray River which separates Victoria and New South Wales. Justine, The Choke‘s main character, lives with her Pop and his chooks on his three acres on the river.

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Justine will probably be the character from my reading this year who stays in my head forever. She is ten when the story starts and fourteen when it finishes, but this is not a book for children. The Choke is a book for adults, and much like The Eye of the Sheep, demands that we see children who are neglected and in danger and that we act on their behalf.

Justine’s Pop does the best he can for her, but he is physically and emotionally damaged from his time as a prisoner of war working on the Burma Railway. Justine’s father, Ray, is a charismatic, manipulative and dangerous man who comes and goes from Pop’s farm, usually turning up when he needs a refuge. Justine’s two older half-brothers live in town with their mother, who won’t even look at Justine as Ray left her for Justine’s mother. Justine’s mother is either dead or gone. Justine blames herself for her mother’s disappearance.

Justine is dyslexic and struggles at school, but none of her teachers or family notice. She just slides by, unnoticed. Justine has girl friends who occasionally comment that she is dirty or that she smells, but until she makes friends with a boy in her class who is also invisible because of his physical handicaps, has no one on her side. Justine and Michael’s friendship is a joy to both of them, and it was a joy to me too.

As Justine grew older she becomes more at risk, as a consequence of her father’s criminal activities and because she is completely unprotected by her all-male family, and also because of her own innocence. I felt furious with Justine’s Aunty Rita, who also comes and goes, as well as the other women in this book who must have seen and ignored the danger Justine was in.

The writing in The Choke is wonderful. Very Australian, and evocative of the time and place. My anxiety for Justine throughout this book was high, and I often felt uncomfortable and distressed as her story unfolded, but I was left with a feeling of hope for Justine’s future. I’m already looking forward to whatever Sofie Laguna dishes out next.

 

 

 

 

 

The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna

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The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award, an Australian prize for novels set in Australia of the highest literary merit. I haven’t read the other novels in the 2015 field, but The Eye of the Sheep is a good story, and well told.

The Eye of the Sheep is set in the west of Melbourne during the 1980s, in a blue collar suburb. The main character’s voice, the people around him, the locations, even the pastimes are so Australian that this story makes me feel nostalgic for a place ten minutes from where I already am and people I feel I already know.

The story is narrated by Jimmy Flick, who is a primary school aged child throughout the novel. Jimmy is unusual, he has a condition is never confirmed but which is probably on the autism spectrum. Jimmy asks a lot of questions, repeats what he is told over and over, and he becomes overloaded when too much is happening and gets out of control. Jimmy’s mother, Paula, is the only one who can control him when this happens. Jimmy’s questions and behaviour drive most people around him mad, including his father Gav.

Gav works at the Altona Refinery. When Gav gets drunk, which is often, he beats Paula. Their relationship is complicated, as Paula loves Gav unconditionally, and she uncomplainingly suffers his abuse. When their older son, Robby, is old enough and big enough, he steps in to defence Paula during a drunken beating. He beats up his father, all the while telling his father he has hurt Paula for the last time. Later, Jimmy calls this incident, ‘the last time.’

There is an uneasy truce in the Flick household until Robby leaves home to work on fishing boats. Gav loves his family and appears to be a broken man, avoiding the family by sleeping in his shed. Eventually Gav takes Jimmy with him to visit his Uncle Rodney at the beach for a few weeks, and the visit seems to heal Gav. Through Jimmy’s eyes we learn why the Flick brother’s behaviours and feelings are so complicated.

Gav returns home from the beach swearing he is a changed man, but despite his best intentions, when he loses his job at the refinery, he gets drunk and beats Paula again. When Gav hurts Jimmy, Paula fights back. Paula is a big woman, bigger than Gav, and Jimmy describes her emotions as catching on fire and sparks flying. At the end of this incident, Gav is the one on the ground physically hurt.

Gav leaves and Paula falls apart. From here the story takes a completely different turn when Paula dies of an asthma attack and Jimmy is left to navigate the world on his own.

Jimmy’s insights are priceless. He describes people and most things by their internal workings and his favourite reading is manuals for the household items. He calls school ‘enemy territory.’ His ‘cells spin uncontrollably’ when his emotions overloaded.

At all times the reader has empathy for all of the characters, including Gav. Thinking about this a few weeks after finishing the book, I still find this surprising. In real life I would struggle to feel this for Gav or someone like him, but through Jimmy’s eyes I have gained an understanding of a troubled person.

Jimmy’s circumstances could have made him a victim, but his strength of character ensures he is not.

The Eyes of the Sheep is sad but uplifting.  Sofie Laguna has written books for children, young adults and one other book for adults, One Foot Wrong, which I hope to read soon.

 

 

 

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