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.