The Silence by Susan Allott

Strength of character…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The SilenceIn 1997, in her flat in London, Isla Green gets a phone call from her dad in Sydney. He’s worried. He tells her that the police have been looking into the disappearance of Mandy Mallory, who used to be their next-door-neighbour back in 1967 when Isla was a very little child, and they seem to have him in their sights as a suspect in her possible murder. His long-troubled relationship with his wife is reaching breaking point, because he thinks she believes the police’s suspicions. Isla has always been closer to her dad, so she decides to go home to Sydney to support him through all this – the first time she has been home in years. At first she is convinced her father could never have killed anyone, but once she’s home old memories begin to resurface and she sees the people she thought she knew through different, more experienced eyes, and suddenly she’s not so sure any more…

The book is told in the third person throughout. The 1967 strand forms the bulk of the book, is told in past tense, and mostly centres on Mandy’s life in the few months running up to her disappearance, with occasional sections showing us Isla’s rather fragmentary child’s-eye memories of Mandy and her own family. Unusually for the time, Isla’s mother worked outside the home, so Mandy often looked after Isla, watching her while she swam off the beach at the back of their properties, giving her snacks, chatting to her, and generally being a kind of aunt figure to her. As Isla’s memories of her slowly revive she realises how much she loved Mandy, who gave her a kind of emotional sanctuary at a time when her parents’ fraught relationship was making her home life unhappy.

Isla also begins to remember Mandy’s husband Steve, and how all the local children were a bit afraid of him, though Isla had forgotten why in the intervening years. As the story unfolds, we discover that Steve was with the police, and part of his job was to remove Aboriginal children from their families as part of the government policy to break their links with their communities and ‘merge’ them into white society. Steve, though, is finding it increasingly difficult to believe that the children benefit from this policy – he knows they often end up in children’s homes rather than loving adoptive families. While for most it’s an invisible problem or not a problem at all, some people, like Steve and also Isla’s father, are beginning to question the cruel racism that underlies the forced removals.

The later strand in 1997 doesn’t take up so much space, and as so often happens in dual timeline books, I mostly felt it was a distraction from the main story, although it’s equally well written. It’s written in present tense, and mainly focuses on Isla as she gradually begins to discover what happened back in 1967. Isla is a recovering alcoholic, a trait she has inherited from her dad who, however, is decidedly unrecovered. We gradually learn how his alcoholism has affected the family over the years.

So, dual timeline, parts in present tense, two alcoholics, and a trendy “worthy” subject – by rights I should have hated this. But I didn’t! The writing is terrific, the pacing is perfect, and Allott handles the subject of race and forced separations with a great deal of subtlety, showing the differences in society’s attitudes between the two timelines and indeed with our current attitude too. There are no anachronisms in either of the time periods, and she doesn’t preach or belabour the message. She makes the correct assumption that most people didn’t think they were doing wrong back then, or didn’t think at all. They’re not monsters even if to our modern eyes the acts they committed may seem monstrous. She also avoids giving too many descriptions of drunkenness and hangovers – just enough to remind us of Isla’s underlying struggle with her addiction.

Susan Allott
Susan Allott

All that makes it good, but what made it great for me is the character of Mandy. She’s not perfect and makes some foolish choices, but never with bad intent. She reminded me, oddly, of the character of Ida in Brighton Rock, not that the stories have any similarities at all. But both women are kind, open-hearted, generous souls, slow to judge, quick to comfort, who attract the troubled and damaged and then become snarled in their problems. They each have a sense of impending tragedy in their stories, too, since society judges harshly and treats cruelly those who give love and comfort too freely – especially women, especially back then. I loved her – an excellent creation who makes it hard to believe she came from the pen of a début novelist.

The story itself is straightforward, never stretching credulity, and told with deceptive simplicity – all the complexity is in the characterisation. Allott shows you don’t need twelve sudden twists at the end or an “I did not see that coming” moment – she proves that even if there is a sense of inevitability there can still be true suspense. I cared deeply about what Mandy’s fate would be, but never felt like rushing to the last page to find out – I savoured every step of the journey. Highly recommended, and Allott has leapt straight onto my list of must-read authors. I hope she’s working hard on her next book…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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55 thoughts on “The Silence by Susan Allott

  1. This is the third really positive review I’ve seen of this, and all three have praised different aspects of the book, which makes me think that it really must be a showstopper. Normally I would think that the subject matter would make this a bit grim for my tastes, but the comparison to Ida in Brighton Rock has won me over – I’ll definitely be getting to this (eventually)!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Although it has undoubtedly got some serious subject matter, the warmth of the characterisation stops it feeling too grim, for the most part, I think. I loved Mandy – I love when characters are people I feel I’d like if I met them in real life. So often characters in crime fiction are horrible! I can see why people would highlight different aspects – there’s a lot of themes in it so I guess we all pick the one that interests us most. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it! 😀

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  2. I’ve recently read this too and found it a very satisfying reading experience. As well as the points you make, I also appreciated how well the Australian character was represented through the landscape and through the characters of Mandy and Steve. I could often really ‘hear’ an Australian voice in Mandy’s good-hearted depiction.

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    • Yes, I thought that about Mandy’s voice especially, too, though being a “foreigner” I can never be sure how authentic it is, so I’m glad it got your seal of approval too! I was amazed to discover the author isn’t actually Australian. I only found that out from the afterward – I’d read the whole thing assuming she was a native. The sign of good writing! I’ll be interested to see what she does next…

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  3. You have soled me on this one, mainly because the author isn’t being too heavy handed or judgemental in her descriptions of racism and so on. It’s also good she created a character you cared so much about, I guess that is one of the reasons why I grew away from contemporary psychological thrillers: too many disaster women who are defined purely by the disaster. At least Mandy and Isla seem to have maintained humanity. I’ll certainly check this one out.

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    • I agree – so many characters in contemporary crime are so unlikeable I can’t bring myself to care much about what happens to them. But I did care about Mandy! And although she was the standout character for me, and the central character, all the other characters were well-drawn and believable too. I hope you enjoy it if you get to it!

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  4. The Silence sounds right up my alley. Your point that people genuinely didn’t think they were doing anything wrong, or that they didn’t think at all is a good one, and is probably true for many past wrongs as well as the Stolen Generation.

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    • While I was reading it, I was thinking it would be a good one for your Australian challenge, so imagine my surprise to discover from the afterword that the author isn’t actually Australian! She is married to an Australian man though, and lived there for a while. All the voices sounded authentically Australian to me, but what do I know? You’ll have to read it and tell me if they are… 😉 Yes, I think it’s unfair of us to judge previous generations by current standards. I bet we’re doing things now that future generations will despise us for…

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      • If the author is married to an Australian she will have a good source!
        I often wonder what future generations will judge us on, most likely climate change and suspect our indulgences/wastefulness will feature.

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        • Yes, I think climate change will be a big one, although I do feel our generation has been trying to change that, so should get some credit! 😉 But I also wonder if there will be a backlash against the buying and selling of children as commodities at some point – that one worries me a lot. We seem to be outraged at previous generations for taking kids away from their natural parents, and yet now we look on paid surrogacy as a positive thing. I’m unconvinced…

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          • I’ve never thought about paid surrogacy as an issue, although it has been in the news from time to time when celebrities suddenly have a child via that means. I’d always assumed the children were biologically related to the payers, rather than to the surrogate parent so hadn’t considered it an issue.
            Selling body parts and being paid for blood donations bothers me, though.

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            • A lot of the surrogacy involves donor eggs or sperm and then a separate surrogate to carry the child with both donor and surrogate being paid for their services. I often wonder what the child will think when it’s an adult, knowing that its mother and/or father created it for money and then sold it. Maybe they won’t mind. But I think it’s done with the benefit of the adults in mind rather than what might be good for the child. And of course, the parents carefully select donors to try to ensure they get a child of the right colour, intellect, etc. I find it all rather disturbing. Rich people paying poor people to make designer babies for them. And yes, totally agree about selling body parts too.

              Of course there’s a lot of unpaid surrogacy too, where a family member carries a child for a sister, etc., or indeed where people donate eggs or sperm out of the goodness of their heart. That seems a bit less problematic to me than paid surrogacy though I still wonder what the child will think

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  5. I do like the Sydney setting, FictionFan. And Mandy as a character interests me, too. I don’t mind dual timelines if they serve the story, and it sounds as though both timelines are well-written and give insight. The fact is, too, that I haven’t read enough on the removal of Aboriginal children – I’m curious to see how that would be treated in the book. Hmm….this one certainly is tempting, and I’m glad you enjoyed it as well as you did.

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    • I always like when an author can break through my prejudices – like dual timelines, present tense and so on. I always feel it’s a sign of good writing and an interesting story, both of which were present in this one. I knew that children had been taken from their parents in Canada, but I hadn’t realised it had happened in Australia too. I liked that the author didn’t make the people doing these things out to be evil or uncaring though – just living in a different time with different values.

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    • Although it’s being categorised as crime, I really think it’s at least as much mainstream fiction. And I found it interesting that there were such similarities between what happened to indigenous children in Australia and Canada. If you do get to it, I hope you enjoy it – I think you will! 😀

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      • Yes, it’s interesting that right at the same time in two very different countries there was this thing happening with Indigenous children. I will try and get my hands on a copy of this!

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          • At least in Canada, many Indigenous children were taken from their families and then presented to white families as if they needed saving and so families adopted them, largely unaware that these children had families and communities. It was a deeply flawed system but I do believe there were people acting in good faith who thought they were doing the right thing.

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            • Yes, if you truly believe you’re superior, or at least that your culture is, then it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you know what’s best for other people. I always feel that about the British colonies – on the whole I do believe the Brits meant well and felt they were improving things, and in some ways they did. But at the cost of liberty and self-determination. And I still feel that about how we seem to want to force our system of democracy on cultures who don’t seem to want it – like China.

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            • Yes, I recently read a book about Afghanistan and was struck by how much the average citizen did not seem to want the international presence that has been there for so long. There’s this idea that the war there is for the people’s benefit, that it will bring them into the 21st century. But that is what a western viewpoint says they should want, not necessarily what the average person in Afghanistan wants.

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            • It’s imperialism under another guise. Force people to use our parliamentary and economic systems and then they make good “markets” for us, or convenient places to station our troops. And expect them to be grateful for it!

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    • I am so tired of twists – not all twists, but the ones that turn everything on its head at the last moment. This had plenty of suspense but also stayed completely credible. Great stuff! 😀

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  6. You’d pretty well persuaded me but the ‘no anachronisms’ sealed the deal. I’m not sure whether it’s living with an historian or getting older but I find them increasingly grating. We call them anachrohumphs in this house!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I may adopt anachrohumphs! Glaring anachronisms throw me right out of a story, whether it be words or attitudes. In this one I thought she did a great job of showing how society’s attitudes changed over time, and the characters’ along with them. Much more realistic than these people with today’s attitudes miraculously transported back in time!

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    • Yes, that’s what mostly puts me off contemporary crime – the need for big twists that seem to make nonsense of the three hundred pages you’ve just read! This story has plenty of suspense, but never makes you feel the author has been playing games with you… 😀

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  7. Interesting. A story of memory and how it is reclaimed, often an issue when it comes to alcoholism. But I like the idea of a dual timeline adds some complexity. And it sounds like her craft is spot on. I may add this one to my TBR list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not a big enthusiast for dual timelines in general, but when it’s done well, as it is here, then it can definitely add something. And I thought she handled Isla’s alcoholism well – gave her a bit of hope for recovery, too, which doesn’t often happen in fiction. If you do get to it sometime, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I enjoy dual timelines since they often keep the story moving at a faster pace for me. It sounds like this one is done well. It’s available through my library app, so I’ve tagged it. Yay!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m usually the opposite – switching to a different timeline usually just annoys me because I like to stick with one story. But when it’s done well, as it is here, then it can definitely add an extra element. Oh good! I hope you enjoy it – I think you will! 😀

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  9. How wonderful, finding a debut book worthy of such high words of praise! I haven’t come across this one, but it does sound interesting. And, like you, I hope she’s hard at work on her second book!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dual timelines usually just annoy me but when they’re done well, as it is here, then they can certainly add another element to the story. I thought she handled the changing attitudes over time really well. If you do decide to read it sometime, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

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  10. Oh yes, I’ve seen this book mentioned on other blogs and everyone has spoken very highly of it! I’m always fascinated to read about aboriginal relations in other countries too, the reasons behind them, the affects, etc.

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    • It all sounded very similar to me to the things that happened in Canada, that both you and Karissa have highlighted through reviews on your blogs. Odd that both societies should have taken the same route…

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