I admit I approached Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep with some trepidation. The synopsis indicated some dangerous potential pitfalls. The book, which is shortlisted for the Stella Prize and is on the long list for the Miles Franklin Award, is told from the viewpoint of Jimmy, a young boy with learning and communication problems. He exists in a world that is a mystery to most of the adults with whom he comes into contact, either through lack of understanding, time (like the harassed teachers) or resolve to engage effectively with him.
Laguna danced perilously close to the edge of stereotyping in creating Jimmy’s family – drunken, violent father, loving abused mother, and protective then guiltily absent older brother. It is testimony to her skill with character that she instead creates a wholly believable family, existing on the social edge, sliding in and painfully trying to scramble out of ongoing emotional and financial crisis all the time disappearing further into the quagmire.
In Jimmy the reader is given a sympathetic protagonist: unconventional, occasionally difficult to deal with, but generally engaging. His playful exuberance often accidentally creates disasters. The logic that exists inside his private world often does not successfully transfer to the world at large and illustrates how poorly society copes with the different.
The picture Laguna paints of an education and social system woefully unable to deal with the needs of a child when the family structure evaporates around him is tragically realistic. Jimmy’s story could have come from the pages of any day’s newspaper.
Eye of the Sheep is published by Allen & Unwin and is a follow up to One Foot Wrong, Laguna’s first adult novel. She has also written several books for children.