The Silence: A Novel
“Allott delivers her intricate and suspenseful story with the voice of a literary writer. This stellar debut brings a fresh voice to crime fiction for readers who love a good story told with lilting prose about complex characters.”
Susan Allott bursts onto the crime fiction scene with her literary debut. The Silence is far more than just a good story. It’s also a character study on the long-term impacts of traumatic childhood events and an investigation into a shameful part of Australia’s history.
Allott places one half of her story against the horrific actions of the Australian government. As we learn from an author’s note at the end, “The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia who were forcibly removed from their families during the period from 1910 until 1970 are known as the Stolen Generations.”
The total number of children removed from their homes is unknown, but what is known, is those children often endured physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their “protectors.”
While one half of her chapters set in ’66 and ’67, Allott locates the other half in 1997. “In a basement flat in Hackney, the telephone rings. It’s two in the morning. Isla Green stands in the hallway, pajamaed, barely awake. She is entirely sober.”
The phone call is from her father, Joe. A man who might have been involved in the disappearance of a woman who lived next door to the family when Isla was a child.
Thirty years after her disappearance, Amanda Mallory’s family tries to locate her but finds no trace of the woman. Now the police have come knocking on Joe’s door to ask questions he would rather not answer.
“‘Her father died last month, left her most of his estate, but she hasn’t come forward. Her brother’s been asking around, trying to trace her. He turned up a few things the police are looking into.’ He laughs unconvincingly. ‘One of those things is me.’”
That phone call begins Isla’s journey back to both her childhood home in a quiet neighborhood in Sydney, Australia, and into her childhood memories. Images of Mandy, who once babysat Isla, begin to surface in Isla’s mind.
“Isla catches the scent of eucalyptus from the tree next door and she sees Mandy in a rich slice of memory, folding laundry into a basket. A blond woman, on the plump side of curvy, with a conspiratorial smile.”
Allott ratchets up the tension as Isla remembers more and more about her childhood. Her mother’s unhappiness. Her father’s drinking. How much she loved Mandy and how she sometimes feared Mandy’s husband Steve.
Steve was a police officer, a man haunted by all the children he tore from their families, a job that began to take its toll. “Steve’s shoulders began to shake and he made a high, thin noise before he broke down and cried.” He was a man who spun out of control over the awfulness of his own, albeit politically sanctioned, actions.
Mandy’s story also appears in the past. Allott allows her “victim” to be present in her own time, while simultaneously dangling the carrot of whether or not readers will discover the woman alive and living under another name or dead and buried for the last three decades.
Readers glimpse Mandy’s affair with Joe through Mandy’s eyes, juxtaposed against Isla learning of her father’s indiscretions in her own time. Isla’s mother had fled back to England, making it easy for Joe and Mandy to start a physical, and emotional, relationship.
As a long-time resident of the neighborhood tells Isla, “Joe was ‘round at Mandy’s place the minute Steve was out of sight. Steve was away with work for days at a time back then.”
But after Isla and her mother return from England, Mandy and Steve disappear. The question is whether or not they left together, and if they didn’t, what happened to Mandy.
In addition to the mystery of Mandy’s disappearance, Allott’s characters face loneliness, alcoholism, and the damage of abusive relationships.
“Joe stood, shut the back door behind him, and reached for the whisky. Poured it quickly, a big one, hand shaking a bit, but this wasn’t too early in the day. Almost five-thirty. He’d put a full day’s work in—his first in over a week—and he’d earned a drink a dozen times over.”
No character is immune to the problems of the others. Isla and her brother Scott are impacted into adulthood by their parents’ issues. Isla’s own problems with drinking hurt her loved ones, and weigh on her, as demonstrated during a visit to her brother’s home. “She feels his disgust. She doesn’t have the guts to hold his eye. She is grubby and useless in his bright, clean house.”
Throughout it all, the underlying theme of the Stolen Generations returns again and again, a constant reminder of the larger picture of the times and the terrible things man does to man.
Allott delivers her intricate and suspenseful story with the voice of a literary writer. This stellar debut brings a fresh voice to crime fiction for readers who love a good story told with lilting prose about complex characters.