The Light in the Eye of the Sheep

Once again, I come to you with a novel recommended to me by a dear friend. It seems to be a good way to choose literature, by having someone else determine whether it’s worth reading or not beforehand. The novel in question, The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna, was mentioned during a discussion about the types of literature which we had studied in school. When I was in twelfth grade, I recall studying Lord of the Flies by William Golding, a novel concerning the natural inclination for mankind to behave with animalistic savagery when separated from civilisation. There isn’t really a grand solution to the problem or moral to the story presented by the end of the book and it concludes leaving the reader feeling rather pessimistic. In stark contrast, my friend said she had studied The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini as well as The Eye of the Sheep, two novels that still have a dark tone but are concerned with the concept of redemption; the characters are fallible, but there is hope for them by the end of the stories. Laguna’s story specifically details the ways in which a number of broken, unhappy characters have a detrimental effect upon the development of a vulnerable child. The father eventually undergoes a redemption arc through which he separates himself from the influences creating his unhappiness, allowing him to finally become the father his child needs. Novels such as The Eye of the Sheep, with a focus on themes concerned with personal development and the ability for people to grow into better versions of themselves, could be an immensely positive addition to the lives of young adults who are concerned with finding their place in the world and establishing their own personal identity.

Laguna tells the story of Jimmy Flick, a young boy with an implied learning disability, living in the suburbs of Melbourne with his father, Gavin, mother, Paula, and brother, Robby. The novel is written using the voice of Jimmy who perceives the world through the lens of metaphor in order to understand the complicated nature of the universe around him. He is obsessed with reading household appliance manuals. He thinks of his mother’s asthma as being a pair of tentacles or an eclipse of moths which block the air ducts allowing her to breathe. People are described in the same way as appliances, a collection of tubes and networks that operate together, perhaps because of his obsession with the manuals and his knowledge of his father’s occupation cleaning rust off machinery at the nearby refinery. The world is difficult for Jimmy to comprehend. He does not understand where crying comes from and he does not perceive danger in the same way as other people. As such, Jimmy is an incredibly vulnerable individual who suffers immensely when the lives of the people around him start to fall apart. Robby leaves home after acquiring a job on a fishing boat. Shortly afterwards, Jimmy’s alcoholic father loses his job at the refinery and abandons the family. Paula gains weight from compulsive eating due to the stress of being subjected to domestic abuse and then being left on her own to care for Jimmy. When Paula is killed by a severe asthma attack, Jimmy is sent to live with his uncle, Rodney, who lacks the means to care for the boy, deciding to send him to live in a foster home where the foster parents have already been completely worn down by the effort required to care for their previous children. Jimmy’s foster siblings eventually help him acquire the means to track down his father at a Point Paradise caravan park, but he is sent back to the foster home after his father orders him to leave. Eventually, the foster parents reach a breaking point and Jimmy’s uncle returns to collect him from the house. The story ends with the return of Jimmy’s father who has decided to change his life for the better, quitting alcohol completely and having the desire to connect with his son once again. Laguna focuses on the concept of taking an incredibly broken individual and convincing the reader that they can still redeem themselves with commitment. Revealing that Gavin is not a villain, but a complex person who is suffering and has the capacity to change himself for the better seems to be an important lesson for people leaving adolescence to become young adults. It is also important for the reader to recognise that those undergoing personal suffering tend to bring harm to those closest to them.

Within the story, Jimmy is the victim of the failure of numerous adults to take care of their own happiness. Gavin Flick is an abusive alcoholic who drinks Cutty Sark Whisky as a coping mechanism to deal with his unhappiness, an activity that inevitably leads to him taking out his anger on his wife, Paula. Part of his unhappiness appears to stem from his inability to connect with his sons. “The bloody Paula and Jimmy show was a show without a part for my dad. He was in the audience, watching” (pp. 10). Gavin’s job at the refinery is implied to be having a corrosive effect upon his mind too, since it is mentioned that he very rarely takes days off work and appears to have a poor relationship with his boss. Gavin’s unhappiness has severe repercussions for the people he loves. Not only does he physically abuse his wife, but when Jimmy attempts to intervene he takes his anger out on his own son for the first time too: “Dad had never hit me before; it was only ever Mum. I felt the bones of my chest splinter from the weight of his hand. He grabbed my arm and pulled it and snapped it like a matchstick” (pp. 149). Following the altercation, when Gavin leaves the home, Paula becomes a recluse and stops going to work, cleaning the house, taking Jimmy to school, and cooking proper meals for him. The event left such a serious emotional scar on Paula that her behaviour was now also having a detrimental effect upon Jimmy’s development. Her inability to resolve the severe unhappiness that she felt quickly led to her own death since she lacked the willpower to replenish her asthma puffer supply, leading to her suffocating in her own bed beside Jimmy. Understanding the negative effect that an individual’s unhappiness has upon others is the first stage on the path to redemption and growing as a person, a lesson which is particularly pertinent to people leaving adolescence.

When someone becomes a young adult, it is the first time that they are granted the autonomy to remove themselves from the toxic environments that create unhappiness early in life. They finally have the capacity to choose which friends to keep in contact with after school, they can work towards building family relationships or departing from dangerous family environments, and they can proactively build upon the hobbies and interests that are important to their own happiness. Identifying sources of unhappiness can be challenging, though, and changing unhealthy coping mechanisms requires considerable commitment. Through the novel, Laguna reinforces the idea that there exists a cause for each of the characters’ toxic behaviour. It is revealed that Gavin’s father had physically abused his four sons, one of which was currently imprisoned for charges of rape and another who was involved in dealing methamphetamine. This revelation obviously does not justify Gavin’s own perpetuation of domestic abuse or the choices made by his brothers, but it does help to explain where the behaviour was learned. The alcohol becomes a coping mechanism which further fuels his poor decisions, just as Paula’s compulsive eating starts fuelling her indolence later in the novel. Jimmy’s foster parents had also taken on more responsibility than they could handle and reached a breaking point whereupon they no longer had the stamina required to care for their vulnerable charges. It is necessary for these characters to leave the toxic environments that operate as sources of immense unhappiness, at which stage they can start taking care of themselves and, therefore, the people they love. When Gavin takes leave from work to visit his brother, Rodney, with Jimmy early in the novel, the man transforms into an entirely different person. Without access to hard liquor and with the time required to interact with his son, Gavin is displayed in a rather sympathetic light. This little series of events reveals to the reader the fact that it is always possible to break the cycle of trauma and poor judgement, allowing a previously broken man such as Gavin to bring happiness to both himself and his son. The potential for redemption is not just contained within the fiction, however, since it is also evident within the actual life of Gavin’s favourite musical artist, Merle Haggard.

Merle Haggard is referenced repeatedly by Laguna. The American country artist was clearly not selected at random, but alludes to the parallels between Gavin’s own story arc and the real life of Haggard. In his early life, Haggard committed several petty crimes which eventually landed him in a juvenile detention centre at the age of 13. These petty offenses escalated into truancy, petty larceny, and burglary which led him straight back into a high security juvenile detention centre several more times. At the age of 20, Haggard was arrested for attempting to rob a Bakersfield roadhouse and sentenced to prison where he remained for 3 years. After being released from San Quentin prison on parole, Haggard committed himself to performing and recording music. It was not long before Haggard was producing national hits with Tally Records, eventually working with his backup band, The Strangers, to release a number of albums to critical acclaim. Haggard had successfully put his life of crime behind him and was even worried about the prospect of the public discovering his troubled past during the early stages of his music career. Understanding that someone can suffer hardships and hurt the people around them yet still come back to find redemption and happiness, however, is incredibly important for people to recognise. That is why Haggard’s inclusion in The Eye of the Sheep is so necessary: it reveals that redemption is not just a concept embedded in the wishful thinking of fiction, but it is a very real possibility that can be attained by actually troubled individuals.

By the end of Year 12 I was perhaps the unhappiest I have ever been. The stress of college had reached a point where I was becoming apathetic towards my learning, but obsessed with grades. I had been suffering a bit of an identity crisis over the past couple of years, never satisfied with my achievements and feeling second best at everything. I felt as if I was not living up to the expectations set for me by other people, no matter how hard I worked, and as a result I became disappointed in myself. Through this obsession with grades and achievements, I began sidelining everything that made me happy. I would skip social events and ignore my hobbies, even beginning to loathe them since I felt as if they were a distraction from these hollow goals I was desperately trying to attain. At home, I was frequently in a foul mood which damaged my ability to communicate with my family. My unhappiness was hurting the people around me who I loved most in the world. I worry that if I had continued down this path, I would have proceeded to do serious damage to my mental health and destroy my relationships with my friends and family. Moving to university was a dramatic change in lifestyle which forced me to reconsider the things that were actually important to me. I recognised that I was unhappy and my method of dealing with that unhappiness was to distract myself by whiling away time on my computer. It was an easy way to disperse the stress without actually dealing with the problem, so I determined that I had to take the time to seriously reconsider my understanding of my personal identity and figure out what actually made me happy.

I realised that I was not going to go to university for anybody other than myself. What was important to me at university would be the activity of learning itself, not the competitiveness of attaining grades and material awards. My personal reflection also revealed that I had been sidelining activities that I enjoyed because I feared they were not leading to the achievements I was previously obsessed with attaining. I picked up piano in my free time again, I started reading books regularly, and I returned to writing in my free time. Very few people have heard me play piano, even fewer read my writing, and I do not approach these book reviews with the expectation that even a single person will read all the way to the end. Rather, each of these activities is fulfilling for me in and of themselves. I’ve reached a stage where I can say with confidence that I am the happiest I have ever been before. As a result, I am also confident in believing that I make the lives of those I care about happy. Reading a book such as The Eye of the Sheep in college could have made that process easier for me to understand and attain, and it’s something I wish was common practice in high schools. The choice of literature we read has the potential to influence our world view, with some literature being more important than others at each stage in a person’s life.

There was one positive thought that I drew from my Year 12 English classes, though, that shaped the way I think about literature to this day. At the time, I despised the teacher who taught it to me; he marked our assignments according to two different rubrics, the BSSS one that determined our grade and his own personal one which assessed other criteria important to English analysis. Due to my obsession with grades, I became tunnel visioned and furious that he would mark us according to his own arbitrary criteria. In order to achieve the top grade on his own rubric, we were required to have a Big Idea contained within our work which said something important about either literature or people. In hindsight, I recognise the importance of this thought. All timeless pieces of literature contain at least one Big Idea of some description. There’s something more to these works than mere entertainment value: they teach us something about the people we meet and the literature that we read. What I learned from The Eye of the Sheep is the concept that all people suffer and are broken in a way that causes harm to the people they love, but all people are also capable of redemption. “If you look deep into the eyes of a sheep you can see a light. It burns right at the back of the head and it never goes out, no matter what happens to the sheep.” Dear reader, always remember that you are just like Jimmy’s sheep: no matter what happens, that light at the back of your head will never go out. Nobody is alone in their suffering and everyone has the capacity to be happy. It just takes hard work and time.

 

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