Book review: The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna

(cover image courtesy Allen and Unwin Australia)

There are books you read and appreciate, ones that draw you in and compel you to finish them but which for all their narrative appeal and readability, don’t really grab a hold off your heart in ways so profound you are thinking about them long after you have finished them.

And then, of course, there are novels like The Eye of the Sheep by 2015 Miles Franklin Award winner Sofie Laguna, which burrow their way so deeply into your heart and soul, that affect you on so many profound levels that you can’t think of a time when the book wasn’t a part of your life.

Part of its under-your-skin effect has to do with its soul-searing, heartrending but also joyfully hopeful narrative storyline in begins with then-six-year-old Jimmy Flick doing his level best to navigate a difficult, and often traumatic, family situation.

Jimmy’s father, Gavin aka Gav, himself the product of an abusive father, often spends his Friday and Saturday nights drinking excessive amounts of Cutty Sark, a Scottish whisky that he imbibes in the peace and quiet of the living room while listening to a continuous stream of Merle Haggard songs.

Gav’s retreat into this room and his retrieval of the Cutty Sark from the high cupboards of the kitchen is a warning to everyone in the house – wife Paula (who is her youngest son protector and strongest advocate though even she tires of his special needs at times), Jimmy and his older brother by six years Robby – to be on tenderhooks for as bitter experience has taught them violence and abuse always follows hard liquor and mournful American country music.

So obvious and well-learned are the signs that Robby doesn’t wait for the fireworks to come, alighting to his friend Justin’s place for a sleepover with an efficiency and desperation borne of many years of suffering his father’s alcohol-fuelled rages.

“The next wave that came was solid and full as a mountain. ‘Over this time,’ said Dad, and over we floated. Far away down below I saw Uncle Rodney and Ned watching and then the rest of the island behind them and then I looked up and saw the whole endless blue sky.

“When we came out of the water something that had been pressing on my chest, a weight that had been there for a long time, was gone. Miniature rainbows covered the wet sand. Uncle Rodney gave a us a thumbs-up and I gave him one back. Ned barked and I ran towards him, water flying up around my feet.” (P. 134)

Jimmy, who is, while it is never stated directly, on the autism spectrum with likely concomitant ADHD and Sensory Processing Order – baths for instance are a terrifying ordeal which he can only endure with his clothes on, the merging of skin and water too much for him to bear – is far less affected than Robby, too little to fully process what is going on in the home, one that can be enormously loving and supportive thanks to his mother Paula, and Gav at his sober best (Lagiuna is unstinting in her accounts of his abuse but without excusing anything for a second, also makes it clear he is broken, three-dimensional human being who truly does want to be a good dad; he just has no real idea how to be).

But Jimmy, and this is beautifully expressed as so much is in The Eye of the Sheep (which takes its title from Jimmy’s Paula-guided habit of counting sheep to calm down and go to sleep), can sense that all is not well.

He refers to the way the feel of the house changes from cosy to threatening in an instant bu likening it to everything flying up into the air and then re-settling in all the wrong places.

While he can’t articulate what is happening to his mother, who often appears the morning after a Cutty Sark and Merle Haggard binge with bruises all over body, he knows something is wrong as his small, certain world suddenly becomes everything but.

He can escape with Robby into the wetlands behind the home in Altona, which is home to the refinery where Gavin spends his days scraping rust of the tanks, but while these times with his brothers are things of escapist wonder, they can’t protect the boys from the reality that their father, despite his professed love for his wife, is treating her like some sort of weekly punching bag.

It takes a toll on everyone in the family, whether they can articulate it or not, and Laguna captures the excruciatingly harrowing rhythms of up and down, in and out in this blighted home with a poetic sensibility that can’t help but deeply and irrevocably affect you.

Sofie Laguna (image courtesy official author site)

The centre of The Eye of the Sheep all the way through is Jimmy, a young boy who just wants to be loved and to fit in, who can go from calmly going through his beloved product manuals to whirling around like a dervish, his voice rising and rising, a particular phrase he has just seized upon being repeated over and over like some sort of manic chant.

Jimmy is a lot, as Paula admits more than once, but he is also delightful company, a boy who loves his brother, loves his mother and father and who sees life in very simple but important terms, an outlook that gets complicated by the fact that he knows something is off in the home, and that his reactions, such as being unable to cry with Laguna beautifully describing his consternation that he can’t shed tears as Jimmy being unable to work out it begins or how it goes, a product of his process-loving mind that equates emotions and factual things as one and the same.

You cannot help but fall in love with Jimmy who sees his world in poetically artistic terms with the movement of the Cutty Sark from cupboard to living room describes almost like the ethereal journey of some luminously lovely mythical creature (when it’s anything but) and the dislocations in the family home, whether it’s his dad’s mood changes, his mother’s sense of beleaguered making do or Robby’s flight from the home rendered in ways that echo a worldview which doesn’t see things like everyone else does.

For all his differences and unique outlook, however, Jimmy is able to perceive when things are good and when they’re not; where he differs from everyone around him is that he lacks the necessary social skills to make sense of it all and react accordingly.

There are times when Laguna, whose writing is so achingly beautiful, sad and sweet depending on the situation that you marvel at her gloriously lustrous command of the English language, captures Jimmy’s touching differences so exquisitely well that you want to believe that somewhere out in the world Jimmy is living his life, twirling around, repeating phrases and aching to be close to those he loves.

“‘You’re going to be okay here, Jim.’ He put his arms around me. A tear came out his pipe. I had never seen a single tear of Uncle Rodney’s before and now I was seeing too many to count. ‘Ned is going to miss you, mate.’ He wiped away the tear. ‘I’m sorry about all this. But you’re going to be alright here, aren’t you?’ He set me back. ‘You are, aren’t you, kid?’

I knew Uncle Rodney wanted words, but I didn’t have any for him.” (P. 225)

One of the most motifs that Laguna uses throughout The Eye of the Sheep to talk about Jimmy’s search for connection, his happiness at its presence and his unease when it is clearly absent, are “lines” which Jimmy sees as physical things connecting people to one another.

In one particularly touching scene when Jimmy’s world has comprehensively fallen apart, he sees lines running from his father to his mother and back again in a photo taken when they had first met and were in the glorious happy beginnings of new love.

This photo and its richness of connective lines stands in stark contrast to earlier scenes where all Jimmy can see are broken and bruised threads , still present but not where they should be and certainly not connecting everyone like he desperately wants them to be.

Jimmy’s palpable joy when he shares unfettered, uncomplicated moments with his father or when Gav laughs when Jimmy is expecting him to scowl or reprimand are a sparkling, vibrant joy but they are ones also tinged with melancholia that he is almost surprised and relieved, though again he has no real words, just sensations, for what he is feeling, when Gav acts like a father and not an abuser.

The Eye of the Sheep is riven throughout with tension, as everyone waits for the usual abusive shoe to drop, and great sadness, dislocation and loss but it is also possessed of many achingly beautiful moments, when Jimmy is with his mum in the kitchen or Robby in the wetlands or his dad on holiday with Uncle Rodney at the beach, all of them so exquisitely well described that you wish you could reach and remake Jimmy’s uneasy and threatened world for him.

This is a book apart, one that confronts the issue of family violence but in a wholly unique way, one that presents us with the perspective of someone who doesn’t possess the usual social and communicative tools but who is, naturally enough, no less human than anyone else, and who can tell when something isn’t right and when it is, and what it is he needs for life to feel like somewhere he wants to be and where he’ll be, against all odds, happy.

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