The Silence by Susan Allott

Although most of The Silence is set in Sydney, Australia, Susan Allott is a British author. She includes in an author note that in her twenties she lived and worked in Australia, and that despite her best efforts, the country never felt like home and she never fit in. However, Allott’s life experiences in both countries lend themselves to her novel, The Silence.

The book opens in 1967 in Sydney and focuses on two houses next door to each other. In one house live Mandy and Steve. Steve works for the police department, and his latest assignments are all removing Aboriginal children from homes deemed problematic and placing the children in government-run facilities that Steve says are worse that the homes from which he removed the children. It’s eating him up; when he returns home after being away for a week to collect children, he sobs on the front porch, much to Mandy’s embarrassment. She’s not sure she loves her husband anymore, and though she promised to try for a baby, she has yet to quit her birth control pills (and Steve doesn’t know).

Next door are Joe, pregnant Louisa, and their four-year-old daughter, Isla. Louisa and Joe are both from England, but while Louisa loved it there and is deeply homesick, Joe grew up in the part of England he describes as gloomy and poverty-ravaged. He will not go back to England and has worked too hard to make their new lives in Sydney. Louisa feels regrets, not only over the move, but because Joe gets black-out drunk and is violent. Her mother warned her, of course.

Everything accelerates when Louisa packs her things, grabs Isla, and she flies back to England without a word to Joe about her departure or where she’s going. Although it was uncommon in 1967, Joe had signed papers to let Louisa share their bank account, and the cost to fly to England and set up a new life means she’s cleaned the account out. We know from a timeline in 1997 that Louisa does return to Joe in Australia, and they are still married.

The Silence is the best book I’ve ever read that makes use of two timelines. We get Isla in England in 1997, trying to stay sober after her boyfriend has left her for her excessive drinking. Late at night, Isla receives a call from her father, who says that Mandy, whom he thought moved away with her husband in 1967, is actually missing and he’s the main suspect. Can she fly back to Australia to calm things between him and Louisa? We also get perspectives in 1967 in set Sydney and Leeds, and from Mandy’s and Joe’s and even pre-school-age Isla’s perspectives. All are done smoothly, so that I liked equally whatever timeline I was in and whomever narrated it. 1967 and 1997 almost dance together, never repeating information or holding back when readers want to move forward.

Although a number of issues are covered in The Silence, they’re all woven into the narrative in such a way that the book feels like life and not a lesson to be ingested. Mandy’s choice to use birth control pills without telling her husband likely derives from him incessantly reminding her she would make a good mother, even when she insists it’s not for her. Parenthood is forced on Mandy in a few ways, so readers begin to think about a woman’s right speak about her body and be heard.

Allott also writes what it’s like for children to feel allegiance to one parent over the other. After technically being kidnapped, adult Isla never sides with her mother, even though her father is a murder suspect and an alcoholic with a history of domestic abuse. Isla grew up to be like her father, so her brother, Scott, questions her loyalty to their father over their mother. Doesn’t Isla remember the broken household objects, the blood, the trips to the hospital? Of course, Scott was a fetus during the escape to England, so it’s as if the children have different lives — one before and after the kidnapping. Scott didn’t live in the before, when Isla loved her father and Australia, when Isla was removed to a foreign country that was cold and rainy, so she was constantly ill and homesick.

But the real mystery of the novel is: what happened to Mandy? Joe says he thought Mandy and Steve moved to Victoria in 1967, right before Louisa and Isla returned to Australia. But in the present timeline Steve lives alone in a different city. There is a reason to look for Mandy, and no Mandy turns up: Mandy’s estranged father has died, and her siblings, whom she never visited, are trying to find her because their father left his home to Mandy in a will. No one bothered looking for her before. Did she move away from Australia? Is she trying to avoid someone? Is she dead? Was Joe the last person to see Mandy? Was Steve?

A wonderful, compelling novel that was hard to put down thanks to the excellent pacing and tightly-woven issues threaded through the narrative.

25 comments

  1. You’re going to think that I’m fixated on covers, but it bugs me that the houses on the cover are not typical Australian homes. Whereas the Aust book cover has a very typical Australian home.

    But I’m glad you enjoyed the story so much. I remember our rep at work raving about it a few months back when he was selling it in to us.

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  2. I love how all these comments are people who are compelled by this story. I dunno — While your review is well written (always!), this story just doesn’t appeal to me. It sounds so complex! Family drama, two timelines, two countries, two families, alcoholism, abuse, kidnapping, missing persons… Maybe this is just my COVID brain but… wow. I just don’t know if I could even follow a story this complex!

    How did you find this book for your Australian author reads?

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    • It all goes together very naturally, so you don’t feel like you’re juggling different plot lines or themes.

      I may have noticed this one when it came to my library and I was quality control checking new books. I may have seen it on Gooreads, which gives those “like this/try that” recommendations. Not sure!

      Susan Allott is a British author who lived in Australia for a while. Brona’s reading challenge is to read books by Australians or set in Australia. This one is set in Australia, except the brief chapters in England.

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  3. This sounds like a great read, one which manages to pull in some social issues while maintaining readers’ interest along the way. (The authorities/government did the same thing with indigenous families in the ’60s here, too, calling it the Sixties Scoop, a cozy sounding name for an extension of genocidal policy and practice.)

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    • The U.S. definitely removed Native American children from their families, too. I thought it was interesting that the new Netflix Anne with An E included a story line with a tribe and the little girl leaving willingly to go to school only to find out she isn’t simply learning and language and literacy, but being “reformed.”

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      • Did they have a cutesy name for it too? *sigh*

        Also, you get Anne with an E on U.S. Netflix? Hunh. I’ve not watched it yet. If Naomi sees this, she’s going to be waving her fist in my direction (hopefully she’s already commented above)! By now I do believe that it was well done, and I honestly, truly, for reals this time, do intend to watch it…just haven’t gotten to it yet.

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        • Audiences are screaming for another season, but I’m happy with where it ended. I don’t really want the show to go on for too long. Plus, it’s different enough from the books that I don’t know where the Anne With An E would go next. She kissed Gilbert; we’re good.

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  4. Great review, this sounds like a very well crafted book! Multiple timelines in mystery/thrillers so rarely work for me because they feel too often like a gimmick to hide information from the reader, but it’s encouraging to see that you found both times and all character perspectives equally compelling. And my favorite mysteries are the ones that include deeper social commentary brought out through the plot, so I’m happy to see there’s some of that here as well. But I’m wondering if it’s a very tense read? It certainly sounds like there’s a lot going on, but is there much at stake? Mandy, of course, but with timelines 30 years apart is there still a sense of urgency for where she might have gone in 1967?

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    • There’s a sense of urgency in 1967 because Louisa takes her four-year-old daughter and leaves Australia to go to England, but she doesn’t tell her husband. Mandy is Lousia’s friend, so she knows what happened, but isn’t sure how or if she should get involved. As things got more tense, I wasn’t sure what would happen to Mandy because there are so many things she could do: run away, go with her husband, run off with someone else, etc. It felt like the 1976 and 1997 chapters needed to go back and forth because each one fed the next, never making me feel like there was a wait to get back to where the really good stuff is.

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  5. This sounds really good! I’m kind of over the dual timeline thing that seems to be so popular, especially in thrillers right now, but it sounds like this book actually utilizes that well and makes it a necessary part of the plot.

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