A review of The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Eye of the Sheep
By Sofie Laguna
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781743319598, Aug 2014, 320 pages, paperback

Sofie Laguna is particularly adept at writing childrens’ voices through pain. In One Foot Wrong it was Hester Wakefield who gave us her luminous voice through a painful cycle of the ugliest abuse. In Laguna’s latest novel The Eye of the Sheep, the special voice is that of six year old Jimmy, a rather wonderful boy protagonist whose perspective is coloured by his Asperger’s-like combination of being both highly gifted in his uses of perception and linguistic skills, and disabled in his ability to negotiate the mores and rules of everyday living and relationships. Jimmy is keenly aware of this in himself: “When I was slow I should have been fast, and when I was fast I should have been slow.” (32) Though he suffers from sensory over-responsiveness and becomes easily anxious and hyperactive from situations that are distressing, confusing or exciting, Jimmy reads appliance manuals for pleasure, and is able to see through skin and through situations to perceive pain, the links that bind people together, and sometimes even to the atoms that make each of us up. Jimmy can even hear the sounds of his mother Paula’s “tenacles” (alveoli perhaps) trying to breath through dust in her “air ducts”, and can also hear the sounds of leaves drinking and people’s thoughts and emotions (“the invisible world”). Jimmy is understood best by his mother Paula, who has asthma and who is fully aware of how intelligent Jimmy is, though she also knowswhat a handful he is, particularly when his chaotic energy gets out of control and he becomes dangerous:

Spit! Spit! Spit! Spit!’ I shouted, all of me fast, my cylinders and cells revolving, my tubes turning, molecules colliding…I was as fast as the helicopter when you pull the string and off it flies, rotors spinning fast enough to cut off a head. I was too fast for my skin to hold. If something spins that fast, speed turns it invisible and all the invisible silent languages come at you in a rush and blow you apart, like a bomb.” (16)

Jimmy’s dad Gavin has a weakness for Cutty Sark whisky, and when he’s drunk, the violence that runs through his own family line becomes uncontrollable, mirroring Jimmy’s spinning molecules.

The novel doesn’t flinch from some fairly graphic descriptions of domestic violence, alcoholism, eating disorders, familial and governmental neglect, and the way in which our most vulnerable members of society are treated. Despite the intensely sad moments in this book that shine a light on some of our worst failings as humans, the story never loses the powerful forward thrust of the narrative. Jimmy is a perfect narrator, and though there are times when he goes into the darkest places of himself, he never becomes self-pitying, and is always vivid in his imaginings, often funny and beautiful in his perceptions. The inner world of Jimmy is as lucid as poetry:

I don’t know how much time passed. I never did. Sometimes one minute was longer than one year. Sometimes a morning was longer than a night. Time was increasive, like elastic. The bus drove on and on and on, though time itself could have been stopped, or moving so fast it couldn’t be counted. (272)

I’m not sure that any of the characters around Jimmy who fail in their duty to care for him can be let off the hook, even though there are positive and transcendent moments between Jimmy and almost everyone he interacts with. It’s not just the characters that descend to their lowest level in this book. It’s also the medical profession, governmental welfare programs, and Mobil Oil where Gavin works scraping rust off pipes. However, Laguna never lets the characters – not even the most peripheral – slip into stereotypes. The Eye of the Sheep is a tender and delicate novel, rich with sympathy and understanding, even when it becomes almost unbearably dark. By the end of the book, it’s Jimmy who reminds us of our own beauty as a human race; the near Buddhist perspective he brings to every moment of his life:

The cool wind that blew over me was the same wind that blew in over the water and across the cliff and over my mum and my dad in the picture. Time didn’t change it; the currents moved around planet Earth, cleaned by the rainbows after the rain, passing over the same places, new and ancient. I heard the music of the sea as water rose and fell, changing the shapes of rocks, pounding at the cliffs, wearing away the sea floor. (275)