Book Review – Florida by Lauren Groff
Steven Boykey Sidley
If you put a gun to my head and asked – best novel in the last decade – I would go with Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Imagine my little Snoopy dance then when I heard that Ms. Groff had produced her latest, Florida. Not a novel, but a collection of short stories, all somewhat connected to Florida, her home state.
Short stories are a new flirtation of mine, I have come to them late. It is a special art, rendered naked by brevity. Every word counts and there is no time or length for sag and lard.
It is an offbeat and eccentric collection, awash with cocked-head frowns and gentle melancholy, swollen with unusual allusions, freighted with the author’s anxieties (especially around her two boys, and children in general) and fuelled by some the most unusual and sharply-spiced sentences you will read in the modern literary canon. At this level she is like Anne Michaels, who wrote Fugitive Pieces. The writing is like poetry, it power lies in the sentence and phrase, in the stones rather than the structure.
This was a surprise to me. Fates and Furies was a volatile, volcanic, sexy and lurid love story. Florida is a quiet contemplation about life and death and parenting and marriage, often filtered through the hot wet swamps of Northern Florida. That these two books came from the same author is testament to her diversity – both memorable in completely different ways.
So there is the story of her late night insomniac walks in her Florida neighbourhood while her gentle husband takes on the care her babies, a task for which she feels unprepared. And a swamp shack-born boy, Jude, wrecked by his abusive snake-loving father, his unfulfilled life racing by us in a matter of pages as he finally returns at the end of his life to the swamp house of his birth to seek his father’s spirit. There is an injured mother and her two boys, trapped in a hurricane in a house alone, neighbours wisely fled. And two little girls abandoned by dissolute and crime-ravaged parents and cousins alone on an unpopulated island, trying to survive starvation and loneliness, bound only to each other. A young woman losing her way, dropping from university into homelessness and hopelessness and finally gently hinted better future. A woman talking to dead lovers and late husband and late mother about the life she wondered whether she had lived rightly. And finally a mother and her two sons chasing ghosts in France, a rumination on looking and not finding.
Joyous stuff, like Fates and Furies? Not at all, but there is a thick and wet atmosphere that pervades all of it, clinging to the reader like a fine sweat as we live the character’s internal lives, pervaded by their small hopes and many disappoints and heavy regrets. More importantly, these small stories seem to be invaded by their author. Her talents, her bewilderments, her continual search for a life’s meaning as she clings to life rafts of a gentle husband and innocent children.
So I continue to be in Lauren Groff’s thrall now, my appreciation of her spread wider than before, even though this book is more distant, less immediate, less fun. But every bit as profound.