Snakes, Swamps, and Mystical Stories in Lauren Groff’s Florida
Review by Kate Jones
‘At the Earth’s Imagined Corners’, the despair of a mother’s feelings toward her husband are palpable, even though Groff tells the story through the eyes of her young son. Witnessing his mother’s metamorphosis into a strong and self-sufficient woman whom he barely recognizes, he tells us: ‘It seemed that the glossed edge of the ocean was chewing her up to her knees… one big wave rolled past her shoulders, and when it receded, she was whole again.’ The young mother emerges from her formerly tremulous manner once her husband is sent to Vietnam. When the father returns, however, the boy is returned to his former snake-filled home on the Florida swamp. The story develops until the boy himself is a father, confronting the ghosts of his past. In this story, as in others, there is a subtle hint of a past fraught with racial tensions.
The Florida Groff brings to life is often claustrophobic and mysterious; a place filled with snakes, alligators, and swamps. There is certainly a snake motif running through the collection.
In ‘Salvador’, Groff evokes a woman in her late thirties, looks fading, who has travelled to Brazil for a month of freedom from caring from her sick mother. There, she rents an apartment and spends her days dressing respectably, wandering the halls of museums and galleries. But her nights are spent seeking young men in nightclubs. She is perturbed by a local shopkeeper, who appears to be watching her, and the story culminates in a storm, another feature of the stories, which completes the closeness and tension of the whole piece.
In many of the stories, such as ‘Flower Hunters’, whereby a woman’s anxiety renders her unable to keep friends or socialize with her family, I wanted more about the characters, sensing a whole novel could develop from them.
One of the longest stories, ‘Above and Below’, tells of a young woman whose boyfriend leaves her and she, being refused more funding for her professorship, hits the road, only to find herself homeless. There are some beautiful lines here, as elsewhere: ‘It was a kind of wealth you didn’t know you have until you stand shivering outside in the morning, watching what you used to be,’ and I read through this story breathlessly, as Groff throws into focus how easy it is to become lost and unraveled.
Florida, where Groff herself resides, provides a sultry backdrop to the stories, and is a character in and of itself. But in truth, they are what all good stories are about: people, and their relationships to other people; how we live and why we do the things we do.
Florida (2018) by Lauren Groff is published by William Heinemann.
Kate Jones is a freelance writer, yoga lover and NHS worker from the North of England. Her essays, reviews and flash fiction have appeared in many varied places, including Spelk, Feminartsy and The Short Story.