Undercover Magic in Lauren Groff's Florida

by Aimée Keeble

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There is a deliberate magic drawn from the ordinary in these eleven short stories by Lauren Groff. Florida presents the sunshine state to her audience as if it were something dragged from the swamps, glistening and stinking of salt and violence, yet beautiful in its indifference. Something that prowls and blooms and learns to bear the savagery of heat.

A wife stalks her neighbourhood at dusk to escape a sly truth she cannot fully confront. Two young sisters are abandoned on a fishing island and grow into wilder things, all the while longing for their runaway dog. A woman endures a hurricane in the company of ghosts. Friendships in rural France begin to sour with the arrival of a girl of otherworldly beauty - a Venus of Floridian symmetry.

There is a repeat of storms, a kind of assault that is peculiar to tropical skies. Snakes and water and the floppy leaves of lush flowers all make for minor players in this subterranean tapestry of love and disaster in America’s most southern state. Protagonists battle primary elements, the evidence of their struggle represented by something as breakable as an egg or an orange.

Snakes and water and the floppy leaves of lush flowers all make for minor players in this subterranean tapestry of love and disaster in America’s most southern state.

Groff has managed to express the hitherto slippery identity of Florida without playing to the state’s less glamorous reputation. In ‘Dogs Go Wolf’ a young girl remembers her apartment before she was lost in the swamps: “the fountain’s turquoise water and the red-dyed cedar mulch and the tree heavy with sweet oranges that almost peeled themselves in your fingers, the golden sun pouring down over everything, all of it shimmering but untouchable, as if behind glass.”

Much like Groff herself, many of her protagonists are Florida natives with two young children. These stories are slightly weaker only because they seem to be variations of the same character, of women wrestling with dissatisfaction from some domestic subversion, one finally admitting that “of all the places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting to learn this of herself.”

The strength is in the reveal of Florida’s subcultures, those who are “born in a Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.” There is almost a mythical aspect to her storytelling, as if she were bolstering the mundane and suburban settings of her characters to withstand elemental violence that come to test their resolve, like the wind in ‘The Midnight Zone’ that “rubbed itself against the little cabin and played at the corners and broke sticks off the trees and tossed them at the roof so they jigged down like creatures with strange and scrabbling claws. The wind rustled its endless body against the door.”

There is almost a mythical aspect to her storytelling, as if she were bolstering the mundane and suburban settings of her characters to withstand elemental violence that come to test their resolve.

Her writing is layered - the gritty core of these stories burn hot beneath the luscious coating that Groff’s syntax provides, which in itself is as out for blood as a mosquito. Finally, an author has wrestled and held aloft for an audience the strange and gorgeously human narratives that brew so uniquely in Florida.