The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award, an Australian prize for novels set in Australia of the highest literary merit. I haven’t read the other novels in the 2015 field, but The Eye of the Sheep is a good story, and well told.
The Eye of the Sheep is set in the west of Melbourne during the 1980s, in a blue collar suburb. The main character’s voice, the people around him, the locations, even the pastimes are so Australian that this story makes me feel nostalgic for a place ten minutes from where I already am and people I feel I already know.
The story is narrated by Jimmy Flick, who is a primary school aged child throughout the novel. Jimmy is unusual, he has a condition is never confirmed but which is probably on the autism spectrum. Jimmy asks a lot of questions, repeats what he is told over and over, and he becomes overloaded when too much is happening and gets out of control. Jimmy’s mother, Paula, is the only one who can control him when this happens. Jimmy’s questions and behaviour drive most people around him mad, including his father Gav.
Gav works at the Altona Refinery. When Gav gets drunk, which is often, he beats Paula. Their relationship is complicated, as Paula loves Gav unconditionally, and she uncomplainingly suffers his abuse. When their older son, Robby, is old enough and big enough, he steps in to defence Paula during a drunken beating. He beats up his father, all the while telling his father he has hurt Paula for the last time. Later, Jimmy calls this incident, ‘the last time.’
There is an uneasy truce in the Flick household until Robby leaves home to work on fishing boats. Gav loves his family and appears to be a broken man, avoiding the family by sleeping in his shed. Eventually Gav takes Jimmy with him to visit his Uncle Rodney at the beach for a few weeks, and the visit seems to heal Gav. Through Jimmy’s eyes we learn why the Flick brother’s behaviours and feelings are so complicated.
Gav returns home from the beach swearing he is a changed man, but despite his best intentions, when he loses his job at the refinery, he gets drunk and beats Paula again. When Gav hurts Jimmy, Paula fights back. Paula is a big woman, bigger than Gav, and Jimmy describes her emotions as catching on fire and sparks flying. At the end of this incident, Gav is the one on the ground physically hurt.
Gav leaves and Paula falls apart. From here the story takes a completely different turn when Paula dies of an asthma attack and Jimmy is left to navigate the world on his own.
Jimmy’s insights are priceless. He describes people and most things by their internal workings and his favourite reading is manuals for the household items. He calls school ‘enemy territory.’ His ‘cells spin uncontrollably’ when his emotions overloaded.
At all times the reader has empathy for all of the characters, including Gav. Thinking about this a few weeks after finishing the book, I still find this surprising. In real life I would struggle to feel this for Gav or someone like him, but through Jimmy’s eyes I have gained an understanding of a troubled person.
Jimmy’s circumstances could have made him a victim, but his strength of character ensures he is not.
The Eyes of the Sheep is sad but uplifting. Sofie Laguna has written books for children, young adults and one other book for adults, One Foot Wrong, which I hope to read soon.