Sofie Laguna, Infinite splendours (#BookReview)

Those of you who know the subject matter of Sofie Laguna’s latest novel, Infinite splendours, will not be surprised to hear that it drew a mixed reaction from my reading group, particularly coming on the heels of recent reads like Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (my review) and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (my review). However, if we all agreed on one thing, it was that Laguna’s writing is splendid.

Some of you though, particularly non-Australians, will not know what it’s about, so let’s get that out of the way first. The back cover blurb starts this way:

Lawrence Loman is a bright, caring, curious boy with a gift for painting. He lives at home with his mother and younger brother, and the future is laid out before him, full of promise. But when he is ten, an experience of betrayal takes it all away, and Lawrence is left to deal with the devastating aftermath.

It’s not a spoiler to say that this betrayal involves sexual abuse.

Infinite splendours, like Laguna’s previous book, The choke (my review), is set in the rural past. In this case, we are in the Grampians, west of Melbourne, and the novel starts in 1953 when Lawrence is 10. As with The choke, my question is, why set the story in the past? And my answer – though I don’t know Laguna’s – is the same: it’s set at a time when awareness of abuse and the resultant trauma were essentially non-existent. This enables Laguna to explore her theme unencumbered.

The novel is told chronologically in three parts. The first ends with the abuse, and the second takes Lawrence through to another crisis in his late twenties, with the third picking him up, a couple of decades later, in 1994. By this time, Lawrence is living alone in the isolated family home. The novel is told first person, so we spend the whole time in Lawrence’s head, seeing only his perspective. It’s intense and introspective, but not unleavened. There are moments of calm and beauty.

One part engaged, another observing. Two selves. (p. 411)

Still, it’s a tough story, as we watch this lovely, sensitive boy, whom we’ve come to love, decline. He stutters. He gives up his interests, including the art in which he’d shown such talent, and he keeps to himself. His body is a source of mental and physical anguish. From the moment of the abuse, he’s a divided person:

I felt myself dividing; there were two selves to choose from. One inside, one outside. (p. 152/153)

There are moments when he may have been helped. Soon after the abuse, his younger brother Paul asks “what did he do to you Lawrence” – but Lawrence won’t confide. At the beginning of part 2, the family’s kind neighbour, Mrs Barry, tells his mother that he reminds her of the “men back from the war”, but of course PTSD was not properly recognised nor treated back then.

After his mother dies when he is 26 years old, his brother leaves home, and a crisis occurs at his workplace. At this point, Lawrence’s self-isolation is complete. He does, however, have points of solace. His beloved mountain Wallis, a fictional mountain in the Grampians which features in the story from the beginning, provides moments of peace, hope and transcendence; a bunker on the property, in which he hides in a game of hide-and-seek at the novel’s opening, is a place he goes to for safety; and his art, to which he returns after leaving his job, provides occupation and self-expression:

This was the world for me; there was Wallis above and the bunker below, and here was I, between them with my tray of colours. (p. 267)

Lawrence also has an art book, Letters from the masters, that his uncle had given him during his “grooming”. This book becomes his “bible” – for art and life – and he returns to it again and again. He studies the paintings, and he ponders the artists’ words. Indeed, the novel’s title comes from Master Millet who wrote “I see far more in the countryside than charm, I see infinite splendours”. And so does Lawrence, particularly in his beloved Wallis. It is while standing on Wallis, before the events unfold, that he has his first intimations of “something else, greater, that was infinite–the earth’s invisible self. Wallis whispered, See this“.

It is in this context that Lawrence’s art becomes his life’s work. He describes one of his landscapes as “like a living thing … a soul contained within an object”, and sees his paintings as his family. He is as settled as he can be. But, change is inevitable, and the time comes when Mrs Barry’s long-empty house across the yard is occupied again. It discombobulates Lawrence:

I painted into the sun, layers of yellow into yellow. Immersion in light. Sun across my knees, sun in the sky, sun on my canvas. Could I not keep going, contained forever within this one emerging world of light? Must I inhabit another?

It seemed I must … Everything changes.

The new occupants are a single-parent family like his own had been, this one, though, with a mother, teen daughter, and, yes, a 10-year-old boy. The tension builds as we readers watch and desperately hope that Lawrence will not repeat history, that he will get his two selves back in sync in the best way.

I said at the beginning that my reading group praised Laguna’s writing. Her descriptions of the landscape are exquisite and her delineation of character, even minor ones, is so very good. Her warmth and empathy are palpable. I also love her ability to change pace and rhythm to evoke different emotions. However, several of us did feel it became repetitive. Further, although I was fully engaged in Lawrence’s story, and was never going to give up on him or the book, there were times that I felt overwhelmed with the multitude of motifs. As well as those I’ve mentioned, like Wallis and the bunker, there’s Robinson Crusoe, Madame Butterfly, a strawman/scarecrow, birds and the bird clock, rocking and a rocking chair, colours, and more. While none of these were gratuitous, they did sometimes become distracting, as I tried to identify whether they were adding anything critical to what I already knew and felt.

As I read this novel, with a frequent sense of foreboding, I was buoyed by my memory of Laguna’s statement that hope is important. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that, here, the hope felt a bit thin, albeit there is a real transcendence in the ending. For that I was truly grateful.

As for my reading group? Well, there’s been a request for books with a lighter touch next year, which is fine by me, as long as they have meat too!

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Sofie Laguna
Infinite splendours
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760876272

Winner of the 2021 Colin Roderick Award

27 thoughts on “Sofie Laguna, Infinite splendours (#BookReview)

  1. A word I find in recent months increasingly the best way to describe writing such as this on topics as sensitive as in this book is tender – with tenderness. This is what I took from my reading.

    • Ah, good question M-R, and the issue is, there’s what the writer says and what is in the writer’s heart. There could be a disconnect between the two? Laguna has talked a bit about this, and one inspiration was thinking of a man at the bottom of a well (like in Murakami’s Wind-up bird chronicle) and wondering what made the man want to be there.

  2. LOL That’s the trouble with reading groups, sometimes you have to read something that you’d really rather not!
    I hope the wine and nibbles made up for it, I’m sure they did!

    • Oh but no, Lisa, I was very pleased to read this, as I’m interested in Laguna. A couple of us were saying this week that we’ve not read a book we are sorry to have read, even if it might not have been our first choice. Not all will agree with that, of course, but we do consider each choice as a group and schedule by consensus, so for me, who is pretty ecumenical in my reading, it works well. I just want to be sure the book is “meaty”. With this book, it was mostly that some would like to have not quite so many tough books scheduled near each other! Next month’s book will be quite an antidote I think – but you’ll have to wait until next month to see what that is!!

      But yes, regardless of all that, the wine and nibbles, and company, were well worth it!

  3. I like your point about the reader caring for Lawrence as a boy, which complicates things as he grows older and we watch him and hope that he won’t repeat what was done to him.
    To have been a fly on the wall during your reading group’s discussion!

  4. This isn’t a book that appeals to me only because I’ve read so many novels about child sexual abuse I can’t see what another one would add to the mix. But your book group requesting “lighter” books made me laugh. I co-founded a book group in London circa 2007 and about ten years later a new member joined and wanted to know why we “always read depressing books”. When we looked back at what we’d read it was hard to disagree with her view. And so we then went on a mission of choosing “happy” books, which was fine up to a point. But what we discovered was that it was so much harder to have a good discussion about a book that everyone liked because it was upbeat, whereas the more “serious” novels generated more of a divide, with some people liking and some hating etc.

    • That’s it, kimbofo, you have to find a less depressing book with meat. The first question we ask when someone suggests a book we are not sure about is, “does it have enough to talk about?” The classics are a good way to go for this and we have many of those we haven’t done as a group. We try to do at least one classic a year. This year it was Barchester Towers. There’s also non-fiction which we also include in our reading fare. This year we read Best Australian Science Writing. But we have had tough reads like This mournable body, as well as Song of the crocodile, Shuggie Bain and Infinite splendours. Where the crawdads sing isn’t the cheeriest either!

      I will be resisting the let’s go all-upbeat route, but there are good books between the two opposites, including satires. We just have to agree on the,

  5. As someone who thrills at the thought of a “Multitude of Motifs” (even though I’d not have thought of it that way, until this moment!) I like the sounds of this one’s intricacies. But I’ve just finished another book on this theme and have some other dark stories in the stack even so. I appreciate what you’ve said about the ending though…that sounds like a tough balance to enact.

    • Haha, thanks Buried. I enjoy multiple motifs too. You can get really your teeth into them, but there were A LOT here. Some of those I mentioned, like Robinson Crusoe, were great, but still, I did wonder.

      Have you reviewed the one you’ve just finished? I can cope with dark stories more than some in the group. I can feel quite emotional, as I did with Lawrence, but not let it get stuck in my head. Some couldn’t read this at night, whereas that’s when I mainly read.

  6. Tenderness and hope would be required by the bucket loads to help me get through such topics. Like Kim I’ve read quite a lot in and around this topic over the years, and don’t really feel the need to revisit. But I do appreciate that this often means that I miss out on some lovely writing. I tend to stick with Sofie’s children books and can appreciate her writing and style that way 🙂

    • Yes, I have too, Brona, but I’m somehow always interested in another perspective on topics I’ve read much about. The holocaust is another example. I have read so much, but there are still ones – including some of the big classics – that I haven’t read.

      I must read one of her children’s books. What would you recommend?

  7. Although I consider myself a dedicated Laguna fan, this one was a fail for me. It somehow lacked the delicacy and tenderness of her other stories, and relied too much on symbols and inanimate objects to tell.

    My book group has struggled to find books to meet the ‘light’ and ‘happy’ criteria. Will be interested to hear what your group picks!

    • Haha, Kate, watch out for next year! Actually, we choose the first half of next year, next month, and sometimes I post on that. I’ll try to do so, particularly if I think we’ve achieved the goal. As I said to kimbofo above, classics are always a good start, and my group is happy to do at least one classic a year. Do you have any examples of “light” and “happy” examples that you think were successes?

      But, re Infinite splendours, I agree with you about the use of symbols/motifs, but not about the tenderness. I found this extremely tender. My heart hurt so much for Lawrence. I thought she conveyed that well.

  8. I too thought the writing and the characterisation in this book were very strong, another memorable read for me. I’ve just been reading your comments about your bookclub and the fact that you choose a non-fiction every year. Can I be so bold as to recommend Truganini by Cassandra Pybus if you have not already read it? I finished it a few days ago, it is beautifully researched and very well written and is one that willstay with me for a long time. Just putting it out there…

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