Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Miles Franklin winner for 2015: Sofie Laguna's The Eye of the Sheep

First up - this book is a very worthy winner indeed. It caught me and most other readers and critics by surprise. The smart money was on Joan London's The Golden Age and Sonya Hartnett's Golden Boys. I had read both these novels and enjoyed them thoroughly.

Frankly, I had avoided reading Laguna because, superficial as I am, the cover turned me right off. A small boy and a big dog, and there must be sheep in it as well? Nup, not for adults who don't generally go for YA. But the cover sends entirely the wrong message. The novel is a powerful and visceral adult drama even though Jimmy the young boy is the central character.

Jimmy's mildly autistic, perhaps suffering from Aspergers - we're not told - but he's a fully drawn, loveable, rich and thrilling character. His enthusiasm for life's basics is infectious. He suffers from 'speeding' and speaks in threes: 'your book, your book. Your book, mum'. He also refers to his school as 'enemy territory'. In a word, he's delightful. 

The central drama is not his condition, however. It's the domestic violence in his home. It's ugly indeed. Laguna skilfully conveys the horror but without emptying the father of all sympathy. Jimmy and his older brother Robby have a warm and loving relationship with both their parents. The deep connections between them are explored. Jimmy and his father Gavin have a bond that survives Gavin's extreme volatility. Gavin is a frustrated man who resorts to the Cutty Sark in the top cupboard for relief. He is eventually made redundant from his printing job, thus taking the narrative to a much darker place. 

And the ending is very satisfying, both emotionally and intellectually.

Laguna has written an excellent, highly dramatic novel, a deserving winner of this much coveted award. What gives the book so much power is the innocence, joy and vulnerability of Jimmy. It's a magnificent portrait and it won't let you go. That boy gets under your skin.

Also shortlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin, Sonya Hartnett's Golden Boys is a major achievement. Coincidentally it shares similar themes with Sofie Laguna's The Eye of the Sheep.

Comparing the two novels on all sorts of levels would make a good Aus Lit 101 essay question.

Hartnett's always been hooked on fancy names for the young adults who people her narratives: here we meet Colt, Bastian, Freya, Marigold, Avery, Declan, Garrick...there's no Robert, Ben, Anna or Amy in sight.

There are also your stock figures: a big dumb bully, a sensitive awakening girl, a nerdy young kid, etc.

But it soon becomes clear that this novel is fundamentally not about adolescents at all. It's a rather savage critique of the adult world via two sets of parents: One father, a dentist, maintains a rather disgusting 'playroom', a place full of expensive toys for his and the neighbours kids, and the other is a violent and abusive drunk. 

Their fathers' propensities do not escape the kids' notice.

Hartnett gives us a slow build. It's very subtly done. The dentist's eldest boy, Colt, senses his father's sins and knows why they've had to move to new areas every few years. Freya, the eldest daughter of Joe, becomes increasingly angry about his violent bashing of her mother.  

Hartnett handles the increasing tension as the drama develops exceptionally well, but the resolution not so much. 

One thing that impressed me about Laguna's novel was how grounded her characters were. These people were from Altona, a working class suburb of Melbourne, and they reflected it in every way - what they ate, how they dressed, what music they listened to, what TV shows they watched, what buses they caught, how they spoke, etc.

Hartnett, on the other hand, refuses to locate her narrative entirely. It's not her concern. It's not important, but the negative is it doesn't constrain her from exaggeration and unreality. The maturity, moral strength and powers of reasoning and articulation of too many of the young characters are overdone. There is a fantasy element there, which I think is misplaced.

This shows up in the ending. There is a bashing and it should be condemned not deemed useful, and the victim shouldn't be a victim at all.

Talking about adolescents thrust into an ugly, violent, adult world, this book by American author Jim Shepard is truly astonishing.

It's an extraordinarily moving and sad story of the Warsaw ghetto created by the Nazis when they invaded Poland. It focuses on the children in an orphanage over the two years prior to their fatal train trip to the Treblinka camp and its ovens.

The sheer courage, spirit and deep humanity of these children and the adults they interact with are inspiring. They are being pushed out of their houses, starved, shot, and finally shipped off and gassed. But right to the end they struggle, manoeuvre and fight for life and survival, including constantly pushing against each other for advantage.

This slow build of a novel is a powerful and emotional kick in the guts. I've read many novels about the evil of the holocaust and this is one of the best. It personalises it through the experience of young, defenceless but feisty kids and brings it intensely alive.

Highly recommended.

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