Margot McGovern reviews The Eye of the Sheep (Allen & Unwin) by Sofie Laguna.
If you look deep into the eye of a sheep you can see a light. It burns right at the back of the head and it never goes out, no matter what happens to the sheep.
The Eye of the Sheep is the story of Jimmy Flick, a young boy with special needs growing up in a family on the verge of falling apart in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. His dad works at the nearby refinery scraping rust from the pipes and drinking himself to violence on Friday nights, while his mother suffers severe asthma, her airways clogged with dust. Jimmy’s only friend is his elder brother, Robby, but Robby is growing up fast and soon there isn’t room for him and his dad under the same roof.
The world has always seemed strange to Jimmy, full of situations just beyond his grasp, but when the flame at the end of the refinery pipe in the empty field behind the Flicks’ house at Nineteen Emu gutters, even the routines and domestic machinery he relies on begin breaking down, one by one.
Winner of the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award, The Eye of the Sheep is a story of broken systems: rusty pipes, clogged airways, failed communications, relationships turned rotten and government departments under strain. Obsessed with instruction manuals, Jimmy is certain he can put all the pieces back together if only he can figure out the connections between them.
While the story is a dark one, Laguna fills her narrative with small moments of love and joy. When Jimmy’s mum, Paula, is taken to hospital following an asthma attack, Jimmy and his dad spend the afternoon building a go cart from scraps and racing it down the hill, and later holiday together with Jimmy’s uncle by the beach. He plays with Robby in the empty field behind the house and he and his mother share an overwhelming (if at times stifling) love. The Flick family is far from perfect, but as Jimmy says: ‘If you linked up the lines between Mum, Dad, Robby and me we’d make a square that nothing could penetrate, like the backyard of Nineteen Emu.’
The story’s bittersweetness is further heightened by Jimmy’s narration. In the tradition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Emma Donoghue’s Room and Nette Hilton’s The Innocents, Jimmy is a naive narrator recalling events beyond his comprehension. And it’s not only his age that affects his understanding—he doesn’t see the world the way his peers do. In his words: ‘When I was slow I should have been fast, and when I was fast I should have been slow. … I was eleven years old but at the same time I was not. How can opposite things be true?’
However, more often than not his unique point of view is more insightful than adult understanding. He can’t grasp concepts such as domestic violence, but he can make sense of what his father feels when he lashes out at his mother:
The weight of the Cutty Sark blocked the valves that led to Paula. Dad tried to clear the blockages with his hands and that’s what left Paula with the bruises. But if he didn’t drink the Cutty Sark, the valves inside pressed against his heart and other vitals, carrying the past through his bloodstream. The pressure built like the boiling water in the refinery pipes that led to steam and flame. It wasn’t bearable.
Jimmy also has a an active and vibrant imagination that at times gives his story a playful tone and offers reprieve from what is otherwise a heavy read. For example, he believes his teacher, Mrs Strantham, is really a crab in disguise:
…Just like the ones Robby and I used to find on the rocks at Seaholme before the concrete starts. When Mrs Strantham got home after a day at school, she pulled her human skin over her head and there was the crab, black shining eyes on orange sticks seeking out her prey. Beetles and rats and rabbits hid under her chairs, trembling. Mrs Strantham’s bed was a rock and she didn’t have blankets.
The Eye of the Sheep takes readers deep into working class Victoria. It’s an uncertain landscape where weeds poke between the pavers, the industrial encroaches on the domestic and workers and their families find themselves torn apart by the very machines they tend. Through Jimmy and the Flick family Laguna shows her reader who the nation’s systems are failing and that this failure has compounded over generations. Laguna draws specific attention to the lack of support and education around mental and physical health and domestic violence and shows the strain financial instability and a lack of job security places on many Australian families, particularly those with special needs.
The Eye of the Sheep breaks your heart slowly. It’s a story marked by preventable tragedy, but also a story of hope, resilience and unbreakable connections: a reminder that there is always scope for change both within ourselves and the world at large.
The Eye of the Sheep is available through Kobo.
If You enjoyed The Eye of the Sheep these titles may also tickle your fancy:
|The Promise by Tony Birch, available:||The Innocents by Nette Hilton, available:
|To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, available:|
|Room by Emma Donoghue, available:||Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas, available:||The Turning by Tim Winton, available:|
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