Child characters with troubled attachments? Sign me up.
The Loudness of Unsaid Things by Hilde Hinton won me from the very beginning. We meet seven-year-old Susie, who lives with her dad in Melbourne. Her mum lives in the ‘mind hospital’, where Susie visits her on weekends.
All the times her father had picked her up and … told him that she had a nice visit, even when it wasn’t nice. Because it made it easier for her. It meant she didn’t have to talk about how hard it could be in there. How character building.
The story follows Susie through childhood and her adolescence, when she eventually leaves home and moves to Sydney. Immersed in Sydney’s counter-culture, Susie finds herself adrift and struggling to make her place in the world.
The story is spliced with scenes from ‘The Institute’, a place for the ‘damaged, the dangerous, the not-quite-rights. The big mistake-makers, the ill at ease, the outliers‘, and these scenes are told from the perspective of the kind and patient Miss Kaye. The temptation is to seek Susie’s mum in the Institute scenes, however, that’s a little obvious. Instead, the Institute serves as a way of exploring the central themes of belonging, being an outsider (‘Two differents make a same; two outcasts makes no outcasts’) and highlighting that we never really know what is happening for someone.
What is most notable about this book, is how well Hinton depicts Susie’s anxiety and fear. Children rarely talk directly or specifically about what frightens them. Instead, they talk around it, or in the context of someone else’s experience. It’s rare to come across an author who can hold this as carefully, as lightly, and as truthfully as Hinton (too often the child character, in describing their circumstances or trauma, is either overly naive or overly knowing). I knew I was in good hands when Susie began her story by describing her worry over two highly publicised, convicted kidnappers –
Ever since the kidnapping she had been waiting for Boland and Eastwood to escape from jail and kidnap her. Life had changed. When she was alone, the threat became so imminent and inevitable that she had taken to hiding… balled up so tight she could surely fit in a matchbox.
Of course, the real threat in Susie’s life is much closer to home – her fractured family and the uncertainty around her mother’s mental health.
Susie’s fear is explored in many ways – again, realistically, as her anxiety ripples through every element of her life.
Sister Sylvester had lifted her skirt to hit her in front of the whole school. She was wearing her orange undies that day and everyone saw them. It made the ruler hurt less because the orangeness of her undies was so much more painful. Fat Donna put an orange on her desk for a week after that.
The first half of the book, focused on Susie’s childhood, charmed me. Small details created a familiar sense of place and time (Melbourne in the eighties) – Holly Hobbie sheets! Fish and chips wrapped tightly in paper! The novelty of a Lazy Susan! – and Susie’s relationships with her dad, her mum, and her friend Geoffrey were realistic for someone her age.
In the second half, when Susie moves to Sydney, the story loses a little of its momentum – the plot moves forward but Susie becomes closed-off to the reader, her motivations and thoughts less obvious. Perhaps this is a good reflection of teenage behaviour, but for me, I lost some of the original emotional connection.
4/5 Overall, a wonderful story.
The best gelati shop ever was on the corner of her new friend’s street and Lygon Street, on the north-west corner. When she told her dad about the wonderful gelati and the precise directions to the shop, he immediately suggested that they go for a night drive after dinner to give it a try. Susie was thrilled. They sat out on the streets watching the passers-by as they ate their pear gelati. Pear!