Eye of the Sheep is written in the very singular voice of Jimmy Flick, a young boy, we assume, on the autism spectrum. I was a little resistant to this voice at first, not only because Jimmy is unlike any autistic child I have known, but also the singularity of the voice was such that it gave author Sophie Laguna licence to display her considerable literary and imaginative gifts. I was concerned the voice was a device, and it is, nevertheless not too far into the novel I was won over. Why should there not be a person like me? Jimmy’s desire to be heard was persistent and compelling; Sophie Laguna faded from mind as I leaned into Jimmy’s story. And what a story it was, what a story it is! I was reminded in a completely different literary context of Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs, where apparently ordinary banal and even somewhat sordid suburban Australianness is somehow brought brilliantly to life, full of drama and pathos and humour. James almost convinced me that my own boyhood, which patterned his, was actually interesting. It wasn’t, but Jimmy Flick’s is, not only because of his unusual take on the world, but because of his passion, for so many things, but particularly for those that he loves: his confident and protective elder brother Jimmy, his deeply loving but somewhat neglectful mother Paula, and his father Gavin, hardworking and at heart decent, but prone to terrible outbursts of violence when drunk. For despite all the grim times we witness here, this is a book about the power of love, about how love might somehow and sometimes win through in the end.
Contemporary literature is full of cynicism, too often it comes across as little more than an edifice of hip knowingness (and let’s not start on Lit Crit.); so how nice it is for a change to finish an acclaimed novel feeling warm instead of smug. Laguna has great understanding and sympathy for how tough life is for the real working class (not on Centrelink), how difficult to make ends meet, raise problematic children, find a way to love those who might be damaged by their upbringing and embittered by their struggles. And although there are some terrible scenes, male violence particularly, there is also insight into why these things occur, leading to compassion, possible paths out of the labyrinth, and perhaps even redemption. Wonderful character sketches too. First person is intimate but limiting; yet through sharply observed scenes (because they mean so much to Jimmy) and snatches of direct and overheard conversation, we see the world Jimmy sees, and also the world he doesn’t and in fact might never understand. It’s a ventriloquist’s magic trick: Jimmy and working class Melbourne in the eighties, somehow we have both the intimacy and the also perspective.
I don’t want to give away the plot, for it is, as they say, a roller-coaster, but please do yourself a favour and read this unique and moving novel.