“ Genre: Fiction / Author: Penelope Trevor / Paperback / 157 Pages / Book is published 1996-07-01 by Allen & Unwin „
I have to confess to being a bit of a Prisoner: Cell Block H fan (oh the shame) but as a result of this I stumbled across the fact that one of the actresses in the show had actually written a novel - and not only that but a novel that was shortlisted for the 1995 Australian/Vogel Award and won the Dobbie Award for a First Published Book in the Nita Kibble Literary Award 1997.
Both of those meant nothing to me, but I figured to be winning awards it must be a good story so I purchased a second hand copy from Amazon and didn't regret it for a second. Listening for Small Sounds is one of the most compelling novels I have read for a very long time and I could have quite easily have read it in one sitting if work and sleep hadn't gotten in the way.
The story follows the early childhood of Joss, a single child stuck in the middle of her parents' tumultuous marriage. The story is written in the third person but always from Joss' perspective which is a style I've not come across often, but one that I feel is perfect for this story to make you feel like you are living the story with Joss.
To accentuate the childlike quality of the story the narrative is made up of short and sometimes fragmented sentences which flit between thoughts, memories and events seamlessly so you capture only glimpses of the full truth....exactly how it would have been for Joss.
The title "Listening for Small Sounds" depicts the nature of Joss' childhood with startling simplicity - she would be like any normal child throughout the day, attending school and playing with (or fighting with) friends or just spending quality time with her mother, but at night alone in her room she listens for small sounds to tell if her mentally and physically violent father is in a dangerous state of mind.
One of the things I love about this book is that it is not just the sense of sound which is used to portray the volatile nature of her parents' marriage and the emotions that Joss feels, but also a sense of sight, smell and touch bolstered by Joss' imagination that brings all the conflicting feelings involved in an abusive environment so vividly to life. Joss seems to become hypersensitive to her surroundings when her father shows signs of losing control from which she seeks solitude and this is when the true effects of such a home life on a child are actually realised with humbling results.
She also shows a maturity way beyond her years in developing ways to define the horrors around her, for example describing her house as "a dollhouse" or when her father began to shows signs of volatile behaviour as "the black dog stirring". It is such simple, yet stirring statements that really help you to understand the full nature of such a situation.
Penelope Trevor does such an amazing job of picking interesting but seemingly harmless events from Joss' childhood and then suddenly adding either an unexpectedly nasty twist to or finishing it with a such a poignant or emotive ending from Joss' point of view that you are literally left unable to read for a few seconds as the full force of the cruelty or sadness hits you. This story can really get to you as it deals with all the conflicting emotions that Joss goes through and to a certain extent her mother as the abusive cycle goes round and round - from anxiety at not saying the wrong thing, to a sense of guilt, to fierce loyalty, to hate which just puts you yourself on an emotional rollercoaster as your attachment to Joss only grows as the story advances.
The worst thing to be revealed by this narrative is that despite all the things that are never said, Joss (and maybe children in general) has a much better understanding of all the emotions and adult interactions around her - and that her parents can never understand the full damage that their selfish actions cause. The strength that Joss displays during the worst moments to deflect her father's anger either away from her mother or even onto herself just hammers home the tragedy when children grow up to soon.
That's not to say that the story is completely depressing - there are quite a few comic moments and happy memories dotted about the book to counteract and give some respite to the bludgeoning rawness of all the despair caused by an abusive relationship, plus this book also gives a great idea of how life was like back in Australia in the 1960s.
So in conclusion....
This book will leave you hopelessly hooked and extremely moved with a sad and brutally honest view of life for a child when stuck in an abusive childhood torn between her love for her parents and all the negative feelings caused by the person she should feel most secure with. It is clever and evocative, leaves you ping ponging from one emotion to another and is quite simply an absolute must read.
Penelope Trevor has written another novel in 2000 - Another Man's Office, and, having read Listening for Small Sounds, this is next on my to-read-list.