Last year my breath was literally taken away by the beauty that was Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes. I tend to think of myself as a literary heathen preferring the oft-maligned (so-called) middle-brow and my usual thriller / suspense / crime fiction genre as opposed to (big L) Literature.
Perhaps I underestimate myself however, or perhaps some literary snobs read too much into tastes and there’s no reason books just can’t be bloody books and enjoyed nonetheless.
I hadn’t attempted Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep because I assumed it was a book that wouldn’t appeal. No suspenseful revealing of deep dark secrets, no psychopaths (well, Liam comes to mind) and no mind-twisting whodunnits.
It’s a story about a boy. And his family. Its pacing is slow. I expected to be bored and yet, when I finally got around to reading it – more than a year after its release – I fell in love. Not necessarily with Jimmy and his family, but with the words, the phrases and the writing. I cried a lot and I suspect some of those tears were as much about the beauty of the words as what was unfolding through them.
Meet Jimmy Flick. He’s not like other kids. He finds a lot of the adult world impossible to understand – especially why his Dad gets so angry with him. Jimmy’s mother Paula is the only one who can manage him.
She teaches him how to count sheep so that he can fall sleep. She holds him tight enough to stop his cells spinning. It is only Paula who can keep Jimmy out of his father’s way.
But when Jimmy’s world falls apart, he has no one else to turn to. He alone has to navigate the unfathomable world and make things right.
In case you didn’t guess from my gushy introduction. I LOVED this book. I hate having to stop reading to write notes so now dog-ear pages. When I’m writing reviews I go back to those pages to remind myself of something in the plot, or an example of some beautiful writing.
I had to stop myself doing it in The Eye of the Sheep because I was folding over corner after corner. “Oh, I need to share this quote,” I’d think. Then turn the page, “Oh, no… this one.” Rinse repeat.
For the first time that night I slept, as if my father had a power that ran through his inner liquids and was potent with sleep. The steam came through like osmosis and travelled through the lids of my eyes, heavying and drooping them so that I fell into a place both empty and full, where up was balanced by down, and down by up. p.305
I love that Laguna doesn’t feel compelled to give Jimmy’s learning issues a label. (It reminded me of Missing You by Kylie Kaden in that sense.) I appreciated Paula’s reticence to have her son diagnosed or labelled; but wondered if that was as much for his father’s benefit as anything… given his occasional drunk ‘retard’ comments. And though I don’t have children or know a lot about kids who are Autistic (present with ASD or Asperger’s syndrome) I did wonder if a diagnosis and additional support may have helped Jimmy and his family.
Nevertheless Jimmy is a delight. He knows everything and he knows nothing. I’m not sure if ASD kids have hypersensitivity but the way Laguna’s written Jimmy’s awareness of (and connectedness with) the world is just amazing.
I note Laguna also writes for kids and the voice she gives to Jimmy (at 6 and 12) is genuine and insightful It’s obviously shaped by his abilities and occasional lack of comprehension and this offers we readers an amazingly objective view of his world.
I didn’t cry. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know where crying started. I never had, even when I was born and wanted to cry because I didn’t yet know words to say what it was to be parted from my mum in that way. Every other baby knows how. When they cry the tears block out the memory, but I didn’t know how, even in the first seconds outside the membrane. That’s what alerted the authorities. p.38
Of interest is whether much of what happens in Jimmy’s family would have happened anyway, or is exacerbated by Jimmy’s behaviour. I’m not justifying domestic violence but his parents (and older brother Robby) retreat into their own coping mechanisms.
The book’s set in the mid 1980s and I guess less was known then about autism and learning and behavioural difficulties. Laguna pulls no punches in sharing the family’s ups and downs. Issues such as family violence, depression and the day-to-day struggles of a working class household are on display… and portrayed as complex multi-dimensional subjects.
Laguna doesn’t waste a lot of time and words on over-dramatising the world of Jimmy and his family. There are no bells and whistles simply added for effect. Their sad and beautiful story felt very real.
The Eye of the Sheep won the Miles Franklin Literary Award – Australia’s top fiction prize. It’s very much deserved. I can only apologise I didn’t read it sooner.
The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna was published in Australia in August 2014 by Allen & Unwin.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.