It is 1997, and in a basement flat in Hackney, Isla Green is awakened by a call in the middle of the night: her father phoning from Sydney. Thirty years ago, in the suffocating heat of summer 1967, the Green’s next-door neighbor Mandy disappeared. At the time, it was thought she fled a broken marriage and gone to start a new life; but now Mandy’s family is trying to reconnect, and there is no trace of her. Isla’s father Joe was allegedly the last person to see her alive, and now he’s under suspicion of murder.
Isla unwillingly plans to go back to Australia for the first time in a decade to support her father. The return to Sydney will plunge Isla deep into the past, to a quiet street by the sea where two couples live side by side. Isla’s parents, Louisa and Joe, have recently emigrated from England – a move that has left Louisa miserably homesick while Joe embraces his new life. Next door, Steve and Mandy are equally troubled. Mandy doesn’t want a baby, even though Steve – a cop trying to hold it together under the pressures of the job – is desperate to become a father.
The more Isla asks about the past, the more she learns: about both young couples and the secrets each marriage bore. Could her father be capable of doing something terrible? How much does her mother know? What will happen to their family if Isla’s worst fears are realized? And is there another secret in this community, one which goes deeper into Australia’s colonial past, which has held them in a conspiracy of silence?
Susan Allott’s impressive debut puts suburban neighbourhoods under the microscope, takes a deep dive into the fractures of family relationships, and reveals the heart-breaking realities behind Australian’s stolen generations.
The Silence revolves around Isla, a young woman living in London and called home to suburban Sydney when her father becomes the main suspect in a decades old disappearence. As Isla investigates Mandy’s disappearence, she uncovers long-buried secrets that lie at the heart of her parent’s relationship – and is forced to come to terms with the legacy that these have left within her own life.
Although not an easy read by any means, The Silence makes for a thought-provoking and gripping investigation of familial and societal trauma, covering issues of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, PTSD and, most importantly, the danger that can be caused by the silences we refuse to acknowledge in our lives.
Alternating beween 1997 and 1967, this is a slow-burning mystery with a compelling core. Although all of the characters are severely damaged in their own ways, I found myself caught up in what was happening to them and desperate to find out how their present days lives had been shaped by the events of a long-ago summer.
With shades of both Jane Harper and Celeste Ng, The Silence is a meaty and compelling slice of domestic noir and I’m delighted to be able to welcome author Susan Allott to The Shelf today to tell us more about her dark suburban tale.
Hi Susan! Welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books! Thank you for taking the time to chat and answer some questions for me! First things first, could you please tell us a little bit about The Silence and what it is about?
Hello! Thanks for having me!
The Silence is an Australian-set mystery about an investigation into the disappearance of a woman called Mandy, who has in fact been missing for 30 years, but wasn’t reported missing until her father died and she didn’t come forward for his will. Mandy’s husband was a policeman at the time of her disappearance, and part of his job involved the removal of Aboriginal children from their families – a Government policy that continued until the 1970s.
These two strands of plot come together as Isla Green, whose father is a suspect in relation to Mandy’s disappearance, starts bringing all sorts of secrets to the surface – family secrets but wider historical ones too, all of which have been hidden in plain sight for a long time.
The Silence takes place over two time periods – 1997 and 1967 – and alternating between these slowly reveals the secrets that lie behind both Mandy’s disappearance and within the heart of Isla’s family. Did you always intend to structure the novel this way? And how did you manage the various complex plot strands across both timelines?
It actually dawned on me quite late that I needed the dual timeline structure to make the novel work. For a long time the novel was set entirely in 1967. As soon as I put the 1997 timeline in, the book started to feel mysterious and layered, and the whole thing came together. I loved putting in those chapters set in 1997 because I was living in Sydney in the late nineties myself, so I had a lot of memories to draw on. The 1967 timeline needed a lot more research.
I used a program called Scrivener to plan out the book, and I think I’d have been quite lost without it. It helped me to manage all the different points of view and fit the 1997 chapters around the 1967 ones. It also allowed me to move chapters around so the reveals came in at the right place. I had lots of notes in the margins of each chapter to remind myself of what I needed to hold back and what I needed to get across.
You alternate between a variety of perspectives in The Silence. Why did you want to bring multiple voices into the novel? And did you find any one character easier or more difficult to write than others?
That’s a good question. I wanted to write a novel that invited readers to empathise with a range of complex, flawed people, even if they weren’t always entirely sympathetic. By writing from a character’s point of view for a whole chapter at a time, I was able to get under their skin and inside their head, capturing the way they speak and think. Hopefully this made them three-dimensional and convincing.
The character of Steve was a real challenge but he was also the character I kept coming back to every time I started to despair of the book; he always fascinated me. I wanted readers to empathise with Steve and to feel quite uneasy about that, because of his role in the child removals. I didn’t want him to be easily written off as entirely bad. It’s so much more interesting to consider whether anyone is essentially bad; how we might all need to manage the good and bad in ourselves all the time. The ultimate and most uncomfortable question is whether any of us might be capable of doing something terrible if circumstances aligned. I hope I managed to prompt the reader to consider some of those things.
I loved writing Isla as a child in 1967. I don’t know why but I found the four-year-old voice quite easy to tap into – possibly because I have children of my own, who were young when I started writing. I also loved writing Mandy’s chapters. She is a complex woman, the product of her time, and she is quite different to me in many ways. Through Mandy I learned how to fully imagine a character and bring her to life.
I love the title of the book because silence really is at the heart of so many of the novel’s plot strands. From the official silence that surrounds the Stolen Generation to the domestic silence at the heart of Louisa and Joe’s marriage and the silence surrounding Mandy’s disappearance, there are so many things that these characters need to confront and learn to speak about. Did you always intend for silence to become a theme for the novel or did this emerge as you were writing?
It emerged as I was writing. I didn’t think about themes at all when I started out, I just concentrated on developing the characters and putting them into situations that would test them. It was quite late in the day when I realised that silence was a unifying theme. Or rather, I noticed that the novel was really about the things that go unspoken because they are too shameful to be put into words.
At some point I read the 1968 lectures by an Australian anthropologist called W.E.H. Stanner, where he refers to what he calls to the ‘great Australian silence’ around the history of Australia in relation to its First Nations people. That was when I took on board his idea of silence as a denial of history, and the title came from that.
Isla, Louisa, Joe, Mandy and Steve are all flawed individuals in their own way – they often make very poor choices that have negative consequences for themselves or others – yet I felt sympathy for them all. What made you want to write about these characters and how did you go about giving them some fairly dramatic flaws whilst retaining the reader’s sympathy for them?
It’s interesting you say that because I wasn’t sure I wanted the reader to retain sympathy for them all. What I was aiming for was empathy, which I think is different to sympathy. There are some things that some characters do which I think make sympathy very difficult – although I don’t want to dictate how readers respond to characters of course!
The way I write is to try to imagine what it feels like to be the character I’m describing. What it’s like to physically be in their body, whether their clothes feel comfortable against their skin, whether they can taste the last thing they ate, whether they are hot or cold or thirsty. When I have that physical sense of them, I start making things happen to them and I start to hear their voice and understand the world from their perspective. I gave them flaws because everyone is flawed and that’s what makes people interesting and relatable. I think people enjoy reading about characters they can relate to; they don’t all have to be ‘likeable’ in my opinion, as long as you understand where they’re coming from.
I was fascinated by the way in which the novel interconnects with the history of the Stolen Generation, and was particularly taken by your author’s note when you correctly state that the subject of Australia’s colonial legacy isn’t really taught in British schools. Did you always intend to write about this aspect of Australian history or did this emerge as you wrote the novel? And can you tell us a little bit about your research of this topic?
I’d written several chapters of The Silence, and had a whole cast of characters, when I read a book called Australia, the History of a Nation by Philip Knightley. He mentions a policeman living in Victoria, a southern Australian state, who gets home from work and cries on his veranda because part of his job is to remove Aboriginal children from their families and take them to state institutions. I already knew about the Stolen Generation but hadn’t thought of writing about it. But this policeman and his personal conflict felt like a way in. I wanted to know how someone would cope with realising that something they believed to be right was in fact wrong, and had caused untold pain. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
Easily the most important source while writing The Silence was the National Library of Australia oral history project, where Aboriginal people who were removed as kids, or whose family members were removed, talk about that experience. There are hundreds of recordings and I listened to some of them several times. I also made good use of the Bringing them Home report which was tabled by the Australian Federal Parliament in 1997 and examines the child removal policy in great detail, leading to the national apology in 2008.
I had the novel checked by several Australian readers too, including an Aboriginal man based in New South Wales who gave it his approval. And my publisher arranged a sensitivity read which was very helpful and I took all their comments on board. Although The Silence is a work of fiction, I feel a responsibility to the people who went through the events I’m describing, and I wanted to capture it all as truthfully as I could.
The Silence is your debut novel. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of writing it and your journey from manuscript to publication?
I started writing The Silence the year I turned 40, which was also the year my youngest child started school. I’d been trying to write before that, and had always wanted to write a novel, but it was the peace of the empty house that allowed me to finally get started. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, to write a book and then re-write it umpteen times until it’s good enough. Especially as I was also working part time and raising my kids. Writing requires you to be selfish, to forget about everyone and everything apart from your fictional world, for long stretches of time. Sometimes it’s hard to justify that, especially when you doubt you’ll ever be published.
The Silence is the first novel I wrote, as well as my first published novel, and I taught myself to write with this book, making all sorts of mistakes in the process. It took me 7 years to write, but I guess all the hard work paid off because when my agent submitted the manuscript to publishers we had interest from Harper Collins within 24 hours, and they went on the buy the book.
Moving away from writing for a moment, I always ask guests on The Shelf to recommend some books. Were there any books that particularly influenced your writing of The Silence or that you would recommend to readers who love The Silenceand want some more Antipodean-set fiction?
The book that influenced me the most was The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. He tells his story from multiple points of view, and each chapter immerses us entirely in the experience and world view of a different character from a diverse Melbourne community. It’s the most impressive exercise in empathy I’ve ever read.
I was also inspired by The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It’s a well-told and moving story that will leave you feeling uneasy about the way Australia was settled, with enough nuance to stop short of easy judgements against any of the characters.
There are lots of excellent books written by First Nations Australians; the one I was most influenced by was Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Daisy Pilkington Garimara. Told by Molly’s daughter Doris, this is the incredible story of how the three girls escaped the children’s home they’d been sent to in Western Australia and walked 1600 kilometers back to their home in Jigalong. The film that was based on the book, called Rabbit Proof Fence, is also excellent.
Now that The Silence is out in the world, what’s next for you? Are you writing a second novel and, if so, can you tell us anything about it?
My current work-in-progress is a spooky mystery set in south London about a young couple whose house renovations unsettle the history of a building, unlocking a pocket of time that starts to bleed into the present. They need to stop history repeating itself if they want to avoid the fate of the previous inhabitants.
I’m enjoying writing about my own local area this time around – no need for google earth! Especially as a lot of the planning and research has been done during lockdown, it’s been amazing to spend so much time exploring the place where I live, which I’ve been guilty of taking for granted in the past. So it’s a big diversion from writing about the other side of the planet. Whether it will be easier this time around remains to be seen!
Many thanks to Susan for taking the time to answer my questions and tell us more about The Silence. It’s fantastic to see more antipodean-set fiction making its way to UK shores and I’m sure The Silence will provide fans of Jane Harper and Celeste Ng looking for their next slice of suburban noir.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a Netgalley widget for the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 15 August so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!