Allen & Unwin, $32.99
Sofie Laguna’s first books were written for children, and children’s voices are front and centre in her fiction for adults, too. Narrator Lawrence is 10 in 1953 at the start of Infinite Splendours, Laguna’s fourth adult novel, in which she continues to focus her attention on children’s vulnerability and the trauma that can result from adult neglect and abuse.
Lawrence lives in a house at the foot of the Grampians, with younger brother Paul, widowed mother Louise and kindly Mrs Barry next door. After years away, their mother’s brother comes to stay, and even though he is affable and interested in the boys, his arrival brings a level of menace. There is a sense of dread as Lawrence and the uncle become friendly; as readers we do not share Lawrence’s innocent evaluation of his uncle. We are right not to, and Lawrence’s life is changed utterly in a short space of time.
In Michael Apted’s celebrated Up series, Neil at seven is a bubbly, chatty little boy of smiles, but by the time he is 14, he is serious and unsmiling. A similar but more dramatic transformation happens to Lawrence, a bright student and a kind brother, who becomes a stammering and bewildered child. His life path is suddenly and irrevocably changed.
Laguna’s novel illuminates the circumstances in which this can happen and the ramifications once a catastrophic event has transpired. For Lawrence, communication becomes difficult, and it is clear that some of life’s fundamentals will be incredibly challenging for him.
In his 50s in the final section, Lawrence, artistically gifted from a young age, paints. He is an isolated figure and the damage done to him is apparent in every aspect of the way he lives and in each detail of his situation.
This is a tragedy, but this is not where the story ends. When a horrific incident derails a life in this way, the consequences can be heavily dispersed; they are often far-reaching, extending well beyond the initial pain. This is true in Infinite Splendours, and Lawrence is not the only victim. Laguna explores in intricate detail the ways in which an act can have ramifications far and wide, changing the life of not only one person but several, with consequences that can permanently derail families.
Laguna won the Miles Franklin in 2015 with The Eye of the Sheep. Over the course of her career, she has shown particular skill for writing the child’s inner voice. It is notable, as the book progresses, that it is only children who are patient enough to listen to adult Lawrence as he slowly puts a sentence together. And although he is an adult, his childlikeness remains.
Trauma defines a life in ways that are more apparent than in Laguna’s previous novels. Art is his escape but he is an emotionally stunted man living on his own, and there is a continued level of foreboding throughout the text, particularly when a young family moves in next door.
Adults do not pay adequate attention, and parents are often absent, unreliable or worse, in Laguna’s work. Lawrence’s mother cares but is emotionally unavailable to her boys in crucial ways. Laguna continues to resist the notion that children are simpletons whose needs are transparent. Her characters show wisdom and maturity that child characters can lack in fiction, and her complex understanding of a child’s inner world gives her work significant nuance.
It would be easy to simplify childhood, to reduce it to something smaller than it is, but Laguna’s consistent refusal to do so is the key to the success of her novels. The children in her stories do, however, possess the innocence that is particular to children, and it is her unfailing commitment to this truth that makes her novels so wholly devastating.