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.