The Silence, Susan Allott

Reading Matters’ Southern Cross Crime Month, March 2021

The Silence (2020) is an Australian mystery by an English woman which I came to via a review and author interview on an American blog – Grab the Lapels (Melanie). Author, Susan Allott spent a few years in Sydney, as a teenager I think, but homesickness got her and she’s now back in England. She says that between having an Australian husband and her own time here, she became interested in and angered by the policies which led to the Stolen Generations. In my opinion Allott has managed to write a book which is both interesting and entertaining in itself, and which manages to discuss the issue of the taking of Aboriginal children without assuming to speak for the Indigenous community which these policies were intended to destroy.

The principal character of the novel is Isla, who in 1967 is a four year old whose parents, Joe and Louisa, have come out from England and settled in an ordinary northern Sydney beach-side suburb. While her mother works, Isla spends all day with Mandy, their next door neighbour. Joe is a construction supervisor in the city and well on his way to becoming an alcoholic, while Mandy’s husband Steve is a policeman whose only job, seemingly, is to drive his ‘truck’ into the outback to take Aboriginal children from their families.

And for those, like our Prime Minister, who like to claim that this stuff only occurred way back in the past, I should point out that the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board authorised the taking of Aboriginal children up till 1969. That is, there are Indigenous men and women, who were born at the same time as the Prime Minister, and in the same state, who were stolen by people of his and our parents’ generations.

The story proceeds on two timelines in parallel, and via the viewpoints of all five main characters. The second timeline begins in 1997 when Isla, who is working in London, returns to Sydney to stand by her father who is a person of interest in the belated police investigation into the disappearance of Mandy who, it turns out, has not been seen for 30 years.

I’m guessing Allott has chosen ’67 and ’97 to fit in with Aboriginal ‘Protection’ ending at the end of the ’60s, although this does make The Silence Historical as well as Crime Fiction. Particularly in the 1967 timeline, there will be a radio on in the background with Harold Holt defending Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the Sydney Opera House under construction and so on, to remind us of the period.

In the earlier timeline Louisa is unable to deal with her homesickness, nor with Joe’s drinking and violence, nor his inability to understand, and despite being pregnant, she flies home to her mother (at a time, the author says, when flying was still expensive and relatively unusual. My grandparents went ‘home’ by sea in the early 60s but flew for other trips later in the same decade*). Allott says she originally intended Louisa to be the principal character so she could discuss her own homesickness, many years later, but the Stolen Generations part of the narrative took over.

Isla feels a distance between herself and her mother and is much more comfortable with Mandy who has no children of her own, and likes it that way, but is happy to have Isla around her feet or to take her down the beach at the end of the street. Mandy has to deal with Steve’s distress each time he returns from a trip which has resulted in another Aboriginal child being dragged from its mother’s arms to be put into care, and also with his unhappiness at their having no children of their own. I must say Isla remembers a lot for a four year old. All I can remember is some very big blocks in kindergarten.

‘Steve’s back!’ Isla held onto the back of the couch and sprang up and down, her backside in the air. ‘He’s back, Mandy!’
Mandy stood at the window and looked out. Steve had parked up already, and the truck was filthy, as always. Mud-caked wheels; brick-red dust at the fenders. The windscreen was covered in muck but for the small double-arc of the wipers.
Steve turned the engine off and slumped over the steering wheel, resting his head on the bridge of his hands.
Mandy’s stomach turned. ‘Here we go,’ she said, as he lifted his head. She stepped away from the window, afraid to catch his eye.

Australian writer, Sara Dowse commented recently in Whispering Gums about crime fiction: “.. when it’s done well it’s often where you find the best characterisations, and the feeling of place and time.” That was in the context of a Gary Disher novel, though my own examples would be Ian Rankin or Camilla Läckberg. This novel is not of that standard but Isla and the four adults are well defined and we understand them better as the novel progresses, though this is less true of the locations, which are relatively generic.

This is not a classic whodunit, but 1997 Isla works her way around indifferent policing to prod her parents and the hard-to-find Steve until she and we get some idea of what happened to Mandy and why. I’m not sure Allott got 1967 Australia exactly right, but in the end I found the novel both plausible and interesting.

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Susan Allott, The Silence, The Borough Press, London 2020. 350pp.


*The era of cheap international flights began for Australians in 1971 when Qantas introduced into service its first Boeing 747.

30 thoughts on “The Silence, Susan Allott

  1. I struggled a bit with this story. I didn’t understand why a policeman would be involved with taking children from parents. Nor did I understand why this would be the sole job. (In other words, I didn’t think they did it, and even if they did, I thought they’d do other things as well.) Maybe I’m displaying my ignorance.

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    • Neil, I agree with you. In WA police did do the taking, in the bush anyway. It was part of their regular duties but under instruction from the Chief Protector. Allott certainly gives the impression that this is Steve’s only job, that he chooses when to go on a trip and that he uses his own vehicle. None of which seems likely. But she was nice to talk to – on Melanie’s blog – and I didn’t think it played a big part in the overall story.

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  2. Hmm, I’m surprised you like this because you are usually quick to notice inadequate research. I abandoned it about half way through and just could not be bothered to finish it.

    This is what I wrote at Goodreads:
    The anachronisms in the 1967 setting are annoying too: a wife could not dial London in the middle of the night without her husband knowing: we didn’t even have STD for interstate and country calls then, much less ISD, so calls had to be booked through a telephone operator. Plus, the very high cost of an international phone call couldn’t have been hidden when the phone bill came. Shadecloth wasn’t invented till the 70s, and wasn’t widely used in Australia until the 1990s, though why you would want it for sun-loving tomatoes I do not know.
    And why on earth would a Sydney policeman be sent to Ivanhoe, an 8 hour drive even on today’s good roads i.e. a journey of some days there and back, to remove children under the Stolen Generations policy? Everything I’ve read about this distasteful work has indicated that local policemen did the removals. It was obviously cheaper than paying travel expenses, and they had local knowledge of where the children were, sometimes including where they might have been hidden by their anxious parents who had learned to fear the arrival of a car.
    Mistakes like this don’t make or break a good novel, but they grate when it’s long-winded and lacking in credibility, especially in the way that contemporary attitudes have been transplanted back to half a century ago.

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    • You’re right I guess. I noticed the shade cloth then forgot it. You’ve reminded me that in 1965 in Western Victoria our phone was a wooden box – you wound the handle a couple of times and asked the operator for a number (or a name, it was generally someone she knew personally).

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      • Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s how it was for us in Mt Isa in 1965.

        Also, like you, I can’t remember much more than blocks from when I was 4 either. I could never write a memoir. If you ever see one from me, I recommend you take it with a BIG grain (or many many grains) of salt.

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  3. Cheap international flights? Have they ever existed for Australians ? It took me two years to save up for a ticket to London in 1998!

    This sounds like an interesting story but my antenna went up because It doesn’t sound like it’s her story to tell… but maybe I’m wrong? Lisa’s comment about factual inaccuracies concerns me… I hate it when things haven’t been properly fact checked in a novel. As a magazine subeditor in a previous life, checking facts was part and parcel of the job, and I think it rewired my brain so even when I’m reading fiction my subconscious is on alert for anything that doesn’t sound right.

    Thanks for yet another contribution to Southern Cross Crime month. There’s been some really interesting and new to me books / authors reviewed by bloggers I respect. I’ll do a wrap up post at some point.

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    • I’ve enjoyed SX Crime Month. I even bought Peter Temple’s Truth (for $1), and found The Mystery of the Hansom Cab (in plain sight on my shelves) but I’ll read them another time.

      With regards to not Allott’s story to tell, which you and Lisa have both (correctly) remarked that I am generally hard on: I can understand that Allott having been in Australia and married an Australian wished to publicize the Stolen Generations which I think she did well, from the POV of a contrite perpetrator. The requirements of the story pushed her back 30 years into Historical Fiction (to a period Boomers often get annoyed about when they don’t condemn similar mistakes in earlier periods). She didn’t do it well, but I don’t think she was wrong to try. As for the crime/mystery element, I enjoyed it and Lisa and Neil didn’t, but that will always happen.

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      • My point exactly Bill about criticising geography of an area you know – you know what I’m talking about! What about all those books you love that are set in places you don’t know so aren’t bothered by the real-but-unknown-to-you inaccuracies. This really bothers me when people – not just you, you’ll be pleased to know – get over hung up on inaccurate details in fiction because it’s so subjective and selective to what we personally know. I don’t mind reviewers and critics noting these things but in the end fiction is about way more than little details of facts – or so it should be to my mind?

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  4. Hmmm, Bill, I haven’t read the other comments yet, but I won’t be surprised if like me they’ll think you are on thin ice here with your “In my opinion Allott has managed to write a book which is both interesting and entertaining in itself, and which manages to discuss the issue of the taking of Aboriginal children without assuming to speak for the Indigenous community which these policies were intended to destroy” given the hard time you give us when we review books by non-indigenous people about this topic! And this non-Indigenous person isn’t even Australian with, dare I say it, “skin in the game”.

    However, I am glad that you are prepared to admit that it can be done! It’s oh-so complicated, because if non-Indigenous people write stories about this issue they are accused of trying to assuage their “white guilt” but, is it wrong to express a sense of guilt? It may be wrong to express it if you think expressing it somehow gets you off the hook, but what if you express it because it is felt deeply and you think it is worth trying to understand what happened on “our” side and why. Not to excuse, not to assuage, but simply to understand because by understanding maybe, just maybe, we won’t do it again?

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    • Sue, I’m about to go down to Freo to catch the ferry, so more answers later.
      My position and always has been that (white) writers like Carey say in Ned Kelly were wrong not to include Indigenous people when they quite obviously would have been around; and are equally wrong when they attempt to write from what they see as the Indigenous POV (the Shriver standpoint).
      Whites should write about this diverse society in which we live as they SEE it, and without whitesplaining which is all too common.

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    • Ok, I’m on Rotto now, on the front veranda of my glam tent, and I’m not sure I have much to add.
      My position is that men have to learn to let women, and white people have to learn to let people of colour, SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES

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      • Hope you enjoy your glam tent Bill and it’s not too glam for you. Hope you and yours have a great multi-celebration.

        I don’t think any of us disagree with you, but that doesn’t mean white writers can’t write stories including indigenous people, for the reasons (and more) that I gave in my other comment. Sometimes it feels like you damn them if they do and damn them if they don’t? People are going to get it wrong but let’s encourage them to try. And if we don’t agree with them, let’s tell them that and WHY we don’t, rather than tell them they can’t. I think that’s how we grow and move, not by quashing – which means of course encouraging and supporting minority and diverse writers to speak for themselves too, particularly too.

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      • You’ve jagged perfect weather! Well done!

        I find the whole “Stolen Generation” episode particularly abhorrent, and I worry that it hasn’t really ended. We can never have too many books written to emphasise this. Top marks to this story for doing so.

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      • The sky looks blue out the one window I can see. I’d better wander up to Pinky’s for breakfast looking out over the ocean and check out the weather for myself.
        I agree!

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      • To be specific, white people, white men’s governments, have had two centuries of having a say about the problems Indigenous people have experienced with white settlement. And even when we’re not actively murdering or kidnapping them (Indigenous Australians) we’re proposing solutions which mostly benefit other white men and spending money which mostly goes to white managers.
        White authors, for all their occasional good intentions, don’t seem to do any better and I don’t see any point reading or listening to them when we can read Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, Marie Munkara, Claire Coleman ……….

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    • I don’t recall any parts in the novel in which Allott writes from the perspective of a Indigenous character, so that part didn’t feel like the author was in someone else’s “lane,” per se. It’s more like she was writing about a history that all Australians are part of.

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  5. I think your comments section reached its thread limit after Sue’s comment about Allott writing the setting she knows and other folks saying it’s incorrect. I agree with Sue about geography being subjective based on your experience. Weirdly, I can guarantee the people one mile from my parents’ house would not describe the area the same way I would due to income, lived experience, etc. However, when there are inaccuracies like Lisa describes, such as including something that wasn’t even available yet, I can see the frustration there, too.

    From my perspective, having never been to Australia, I enjoyed and could picture the setting, especially the way Allott describes the plant life in the back yard. Every time I wanted something more from a different timeline, within a few pages, she took me back there, and that’s something I’ve never experienced before. I did get the sense that the mother was taking a huge risk by clearing out their entire savings account, one meant to buy her a car, and flying to England. Given the time period, I assume he could have ever accused her of stealing. Thanks for reading this book, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. I dubbed it historical fiction on my blog, stupidly not even thinking of it as crime fiction because it seemed like their lives in the 1960s were the main focus, rather than the murder.

    p.s. I chortled aloud when I read, “All I can remember is some very big blocks in kindergarten.” I also was surprised this four-year-old remembered such detail. I can remember lots from when I was very little, but it’s not in long narrative format in my brain. More like scenes.

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    • I limit the indents so I can follow Comments on my phone, but it does make for confused conversations.
      I’m glad I read it (and paid for my copy!) I think Allott wrote a good mystery and made a valiant attempt to address a subject that very few Australians are brave enough to include – other than the Indigenous authors who were subject to it of course.
      I joked about my 4yo memories, but of course an author writes what the 4yo sees at the time, not the child’s later memories.

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  6. I just love the juxtaposition of the titles of your two reviews, this one and the previous one. It makes me want to look for pairs in my own stack right now. (Even though obviously these two stories could hardly be more different!)

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    • I hadn’t noticed, except that they were both single words, and you’d think all those had been used up by now.
      Perhaps it’s a hint I should have another go at spine poetry.

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  7. I really enjoyed this review and the thoughtful, spirited comments that followed. I had not previously known about the Stolen Generations, so I am off to learn more.

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    • My starting place for the Stolen Generations will always be Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, book and movie. But every Aboriginal memoir will include their personal experience of this inhumane policy. My own favourite is another Western Australian When the Pelican Laughed by Alice Nannup. But then there’s the biting satire of Marie Munkara from the Northern Territory.

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