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).