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Towards redemption: Sofie Laguna’s ‘Infinite Splendours’

By Bec Kavanagh
The Miles Franklin–winning author’s latest novel is an invasive, challenging story of child abuse and its repercussions

Those who are familiar with Sofie Laguna’s earlier novels will appreciate her gift for bringing the internal lives and hurts of children to the fore. In this, Infinite Splendours is no exception to her previous work, although it is in many ways amplified: the traumas more detailed and more horrifying, but the language even more exquisite. In her trademark style, Laguna digs deep into the moments that break and shape young minds, picking away at the cause and effect of violence enacted upon children with an unflinching, sometimes morbid, curiosity.

Lawrence is a bright and curious child, whose natural affinity for art doesn’t make sense to his mother, who is more impressed by his school reports than his ability to capture the world in painting. She is a practical, determined woman, and a single mother to Lawrence and his brother, Paul. Their neighbour, Mrs Barry, assists by watching over the children while their mother works, and her presence is a familiar comfort, although she leaves the boys largely to their own devices. Their lives unfold in the shadow of a mountain range, with one particular peak looming large in Lawrence’s juvenile imagination. “I looked up ahead at Wallis, jutting into the blue sky. The silence seemed to come from the mountain itself, beginning inside him, radiating outwards.”

Along with school and playing games with his brother, Lawrence’s early years are punctuated by him contemplating what it would be like to climb Wallis. When Lawrence’s absent uncle, Reggie, comes to stay in the spare room, previously occupied only by their father’s war medal, Lawrence is captivated by him, discovering an adult who treats him as something special, who shows an interest in his painting and his life outside of school. Reggie is worldly – he is relaxed where Lawrence’s mother is firm – and he showers Lawrence with gifts and attention. And although Paul and Mrs Barry never warm to Reggie, Lawrence sees how much his presence means to their mother, how she becomes more youthful and carefree with her brother in the house. When Lawrence’s uncle violates his trust and his body, Lawrence is left unable to speak, his words swallowed by a shame and fear that fundamentally change who he is, altering his identity for the remainder of his life.

There are many similarities between Infinite Splendours and Laguna’s earlier novels for adults. One Foot Wrong, The Choke and the Miles Franklin–winning The Eye of the Sheep all feature children betrayed by the adults around them, and all three stories are told in the unique, captivating voices of child narrators. Infinite Splendours is similar, but follows Lawrence further into adulthood, exploring the effects of trauma in greater detail. And while this novel is in many ways more difficult to read, Laguna’s technical mastery has also advanced, allowing her to weave imagery of hope, rapture even, into a narrative that on the surface offers very little opportunity to do so. Lawrence draws comfort and inspiration from his hyper-awareness of the natural world and his position in it: “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.”

In the immediate aftermath of the abuse, Lawrence finds no respite from his suffering. Just as she’s done in earlier novels, Laguna removes any adults who might offer a way out, leaving Lawrence feeling isolated in a world that has become unfamiliar and unfriendly to him. But although this is a story of abuse and suffering, it is also one of hope and redemption. Painting provides a way for Lawrence to express himself, and it allows him to witness the “infinite splendours” of the novel’s title. Art is hope and redemption, it is understanding and identity, and a way for Lawrence to find his way back to himself.

Laguna trained as an actor before turning to writing, so it’s no surprise that her entry point into her novels is character; her insight into what makes them tick is what makes her writing so compelling. Here, she pushes the boundaries beyond what is comfortable, following Lawrence into adulthood where he grapples with the effects of his abuse on his sense of self, his relationships with others, and his relationship with his own body. It is deeply disturbing for the reader, who finds themself flung between empathy and horror. In this sense, Laguna leaves you to experience Lawrence’s trauma as he himself has experienced it: at times it is terrifying and overwhelming, at times a source of deep insight and wonder. In adulthood, Lawrence is simultaneously a victim, a monster, a child, a friend and an artist. “Mothers could not always keep their sons safe,” he reflects at one point, referring both to the threat that he recognises in himself, and the failure of his own mother to see the harm that was done to him as a child.

Infinite Splendours is an invasive, challenging read. Laguna captures the most intimate hurts of her young protagonist so skilfully that, in many ways, it feels like an intrusion. At times it is too close for comfort, but what saves her writing from being too bleak to bear is Laguna’s deep empathy towards her characters. There is no doubt that she loves Lawrence, and it is this love that points, even in the darkest moments of the narrative, towards redemption.

Bec Kavanagh

Bec Kavanagh is a writer, literary critic and academic. Her research explores representation of female bodies in literature, and she is the schools manager at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas.

@beckavanagh

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