“The water was a cool safe home around me. I surrendered to the floating world: all of my parts underneath, my root and the hole left behind, my cells, all drifted in the light from the eye of the sheep.”
– Sofie Laguna, The Eye of the Sheep.
Sometimes when you finish a book, you find that you have been so completely immersed in the story that you struggle to pull yourself back out again. Sofie Laguna has created a wonder in The Eye of the Sheep; I completely understand why this novel has been longlisted (and subsequently shortlisted) for The Stella Prize. It is an intelligent, compassionate and insightful read about a little boy who is just a little bit different and a family that is falling apart at the seams.
After finishing this stunning book, for some reason I thought of a section from the movie Shrek,
“Shrek: Ogres are like onions.
Donkey: They stink?
Shrek: Yes. No.
Donkey: Oh, they make you cry.
Shrek: No. Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.
Donkey: Oh, you both have layers. Oh. You know, not everybody likes onions.”
Now, I am not suggesting that this novel stinks like an onion. Quite the opposite, in fact! It is a fascinating look into the mind of a little boy who views the world from the inside out. He visualises lines connecting his mother and father, his cells spin uncontrollably with emotion and he sees family members as branches from the same tree. Little Jimmy Flick is son to Gavin and Paula and younger brother to Robby. The reader follows the lives of these four characters and we watch as their lives spiral almost to the point of no control. Life is complex; times are tough financially, medical issues continue to get worse and living with a child with special needs is always a challenge. Add to that an alcohol addiction and you have a story that is bleak, sad and heartbreaking.
My greatest question of this novel is in what aspect of Laguna’s life did she come across the experience to write about a character like little Jimmy Flick? He is an exceptional character whose unique view of the world is both complex and simple. We see the story unfold from Jimmy’s point of view – a young boy who seeks the affection and approval of his mother, father and brother and yet he allows the reader glimpses of what is really going on. Hence the layers! Beyond Jimmy is a story of alcoholism and domestic violence within the home as well as the instability and ineffectiveness of the public system in dealing with kids that are different. What I found to be the most impressive aspect of this novel is Laguna’s control over her story, language and the characters. She never allows any one of them to run away from her; the restraint she shows in certain parts of the story is impressive.
As mentioned before, it is a bleak tale. Isolation, blame, sacrifice and guilt all play a massive part. Guilt is the driving force behind the actions of each character; Gavin turns to alcohol to drive away his insecurities of not being able to support his family and not coping with the son he has been given (and for wishing he was different), Paula eats to deal with her isolation and her inability to protect her boys from the evils in their lives and poor little Robby is driven away by his fear of his father and his powerlessness to protect the ones he loves. They’re not bad people. For all their flaws (as perfectly human as they are) there are moments of happiness and joy and an undercurrent of love that brings them together, over and over again. Laguna stresses the importance of family, whatever form it comes in.