In 1960s rural Victoria a nine-year-old girl goes missing.
It’s 1960, rural Victoria. Eleven-year-old Joy Henderson lives a nightmare existence, trying to avoid her father’s wrath. George Henderson is a pillar of the community, but at home he abuses his wife and children. A religious man and prominent member of his church, he viciously calls his children filthy sinners and enforces the most unforgiving, draconian version of Christianity. George's wife, Gwen, keeps her head down and tries to avoid her husband's terrible rages. Making matters worse, the family own a struggling dairy farm. With no money and ever stringent economies being forced on Gwen, who must put food on the table, life is one of unremitting misery.
Then one day nine-year-old Wendy Boscombe goes missing from a neighbouring property. It's a complete mystery, and locals hope that she's merely wandered off, but there are suspicions it could be a case of abduction or murder. The police come to the Henderson house and do a routine questioning. Everyone's nerves are on edge. George calmly answers questions and then announces he will go and pray with the Boscombe family.
The answer to what actually happened to Wendy Boscombe slowly unfurls over some 470 pages, going through many twists and turns until all is revealed near the book's very last pages. This is a psychological novel par excellence. Every page is filled with foreboding and dread, a feeling that never lets up. The plot is crafted with incredible skill, moving between the 1940s, 1960s and 1980s, slowly revealing its many layers. While the story is complicated and multifaceted, it's written in a lucid style that is totally addictive.
One of the novel's chief qualities is its realism. Apparently based loosely on the author's childhood, the descriptions of life on a farm in the 1940s and 1960s - of the dinginess, poverty, money worries and general meanness of life – have a gritty, true-to-life feeling. The portrait Yeowart paints of the food alone – eel stews, skinned rabbits and headless chooks – is stomach churning.
One could say the main theme of the book is the abuse of children, their helplessness and inability to speak for themselves. Many who have experienced compromised childhoods may find the book a cathartic experience.
A gripping psychological thriller, expertly told, but with a solid base of realism that lifts it above the pack.
The Silent Listener, by Lyn Yeowart. Published by Viking. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books