Sofie Laguna has established herself as a writer who renders the world in vivid detail through the eyes of children. She skilfully shows how childhood can be punctured by brutality: the first-person protagonists of her two previous novels are betrayed by the adults who should protect them. Jimmy, the narrator of her Miles Franklin award-winning novel, The Eye of the Sheep, is autistic, and his struggles to understand the adult world are exacerbated by domestic violence. In Laguna’s next book, The Choke, Justine is in danger, surrounded by male aggression and menace. Both children are buffeted by chaos, failed by their families, and abandoned to navigate life in the aftermath of trauma.
In her latest novel, Infinite Splendours, Laguna again examines the effects of trauma on a child, but this time follows the narrator, Lawrence, into adulthood. We observe, in painful detail, the way trauma shapes and skews his life and relationships. Laguna’s depiction of sexual abuse is raw and confronting; her characterisation of Lawrence will potentially be deeply triggering for some victim-survivors.
When the narrative begins in 1953, 10-year-old Lawrence lives with his mother, Louise, and his younger brother, Paul, in a rural town at the foothills of the Grampians in Victoria. Lawrence’s aircraft pilot father was killed in the war, leaving Louise to raise her two sons on her own. She runs their small farm and works “on the numbers” in the office of a local dairy to, as she describes it, “keep the wolf from the door”.
Laguna’s portrait of a single mother, harried and lonely, working to feed, educate and clothe her children, is acute. Lawrence laments that his “no-nonsense” mother maintains an emotional distance from her sons, lost in her own grief and toil: “Even if Mother was close, washing our hair in the bath or doing our buttons or sticking plasters to our knees, she kept a part back, and that was the part we wanted.” We later learn that Louise, too, suffered some unspecified trauma as a child, which suggests an entrenched familial pattern.
The two brothers have a close bond in childhood. While Paul is sporty, Lawrence is artistic and clever, the latter being a trait he shares, according to his mother, with her beloved but estranged brother, Reggie. Their quiet, predictable lives are upended when Reggie unexpectedly comes to stay. His arrival is a relief to Louise, who finds herself, finally, with a man who can help around the house.
Lawrence is charmed and intrigued by his worldly uncle. In ominous grooming behaviour, Reggie pays the boy special attention, buying him gifts to fuel his burgeoning artistic passion. Louise has not kept the wolf from the door; she has inadvertently invited him right into their home. Laguna drags the reader like an anxious dog by the collar towards Reggie’s betrayal, which is savage and absolute. Soon after, he abandons the family. Paul – who has been suspicious of their uncle from the outset – asks, “What did he do to you, Laurie?” but Lawrence is broken; he retreats wholly into his own world, from which he never emerges.
As Infinite Splendours traces the course of Lawrence’s life, we see the manifestation of sexual assault on him in his time at school – he develops a debilitating stutter and his grades suffer – and into adulthood. Stunted by his uncle’s abuse, Lawrence is unable to function socially, or to ever properly mature. He is trapped in circular, repetitive thoughts, bound to home and its familiar routines. While Paul shows a sense of obligation towards Lawrence, their relationship now lacks any emotional connection.
As an adult, Lawrence lives on the family property alone and rediscovers his passion for art, ignited by the natural beauty of the Grampians. The healing benediction of nature is a theme Laguna also explored in The Choke, albeit in a different Australian landscape, the Murray River. The fictional Mount Wallis watches over Lawrence, magnificent in “his” (Lawrence’s assertion of gender) shifting moods through changes in light and weather. Lawrence’s obsessive sketches and paintings pile up around the house, literally closing him into his claustrophobic existence.
Infinite Splendours sits alongside novels by other Australian writers – Dominic Smith, Alex Miller, Zoë Morrison – on the restorative power of art, though at times it feels as though Laguna is giving readers an art lesson. The final two pages of the book’s acknowledgements feature an all-male, all-white list of European old masters. Perhaps this can be explained as being authentic to the era of the novel’s setting, but it remains jarring.
Nothing much else happens in Lawrence’s habitual cycle of life. The plot is driven by the reader’s trepidation that Lawrence might, perhaps inevitably, become a perpetrator of abuse himself. Two boys opportunely appear at separate times in his adult life, and Laguna places us inside Lawrence’s mind to bear witness to his infatuation. The boys are attentive, they listen patiently through his stutter and they relieve his usual self-consciousness. Both are also at similar ages to Lawrence’s when his life was fractured; they remind him of his stolen youth. The narrative manipulates the reader’s empathy towards Lawrence as a potential abuser, and the question worth asking is whether Infinite Splendours is the book we need on this topic, especially in the wake of the exposure of widespread and systemic sexual abuse of children. Laguna’s tenderness towards Lawrence undermines her admirable aim to show a nuanced perspective of a fraught and complex issue.
Lawrence’s voice in the last quarter of the novel – as he repeatedly rocks in his mother’s chair, exclaims revelations to himself, explores his “privates” for the first time and asks rhetorical meaning-of-life questions of himself – teeters on a knife-edge of caricature. This diminishes the power of the childhood sections of Infinite Splendours, which come closest to matching the lucidity of Laguna’s characterisation in her earlier novels.
Allen & Unwin, 448pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2020 as "Sofie Laguna, Infinite Splendours".
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