Auntie M had the good fortune recently to interview Susan Allott, after reading and thoroughly enjoying her debut THE SILENCE. Here are a few questions to head the review and give readers a better sense of the author:

Susan Allott (photo by John Yabrifa)

Auntie M: The setting comes alive in both time periods of this mystery. I understand you spent time in Australia and used your own homesickness for England to inform the main character’s mother. What made you decide to set the The Silence in Australia?

Susan Allott: I wrote about Australia because of my time living there as a homesick ex-pat, and also because when I got back to London I met my future husband who was, by crazy coincidence, Australian. Louisa, my protagonist’s British mother, goes through an experience of extreme homesickness that was close to my own, and I originally thought her story would be more central to the book. But over time the Australian characters and settings took over and The Silence became a book about coming back to Australia rather than leaving it.

AM: It seems remarkable that a person could disappear for thirty years and not be asked after, yet you’ve skillfully set up those parameters. How did the Faber Academy course you took help with those kinds of plot points? Could you describe the course for readers?

SA: The Faber Academy course that I took part in runs over six months and is held in the Faber offices in central London. There were a dozen students, and we met up every Tuesday evening for six months. I already had a draft of The Silence when I enrolled but I had doubts about whether it was worth pursuing. The course gave me confidence and helped me to see myself as someone who could be published one day. Once you have that, the lessons about plot, structure, voice and so on start to take hold.

AM: The Isla who returns to Australia is not the same person who leaves for England, nor will she be at the end of the book. How did you decide on her pathway to growth and change?

SA: The subject that fascinated me from the outset of writing The Silence was the enormous pull of home, and how we form our identity around the place we come from. I also think we sometimes idealize the place we call home if we live far away, so that after a while home can become an idea without much grounding in reality. So Isla’s return to Australia to find out what happened to Mandy was also about Isla’s personal quest to figure out where she really came from, separating the idea from the reality.

AM: The colonial situation revolving around Aboriginal children is skillfully handled. What was it about that period in Australia’s history that made you decide to illustrate it? Which came first: that idea or the mystery?

SA: I’d written several chapters of The Silence, and had a whole cast of characters, when I read a book called Australia, the History of a Nation by Philip Knightley. He mentions a policeman living in Victoria, a southern Australian state, who gets home from work and cries on his veranda because part of his job is to remove Aboriginal children from their families and take them to state institutions. I already knew about the Stolen Generation but hadn’t thought of writing about it. But this policeman and his personal conflict felt like a way in. It fascinated me and the mystery grew out of that.

AM: What are you working on now, for readers who will be looking for your next book?

SA: I’m working on a spooky mystery set in my part of South London, where the new inhabitants of a Victorian house start knocking down walls and unsettling the secrets that have been locked into the building for decades. They unwittingly open up a long-buried pocket of time which starts to bleed into the present. Can they stop history repeating itself?

AM: Whose books would we find on your nightstand’s To Be Read pile?

SA: The new Elizabeth Strout, Olive Again, is next to my bed and will probably be my next read. But I’m also very tempted by Sadie Jones’ The Snakes, and Anna Hope’s Expectation. And although they aren’t physically on my nightstand, I SO want to read Hamnet, the new Maggie O’Farrel, and Bass Rock, the new Evie Wyld. Deciding what to read next is my favorite dilemma.

Many thanks for these insights, Susan. And now on to the review:

Susan Allott’s remarkable debut, The Silence, brings a mystery to the forefront, set in a Sydney suburb.

Alternating between 1967 and 1997, it tells the story of Isla Green, whose father calls her Hackney flat, a call that sees Isla return to Australia. The police have been to see him, in connection with a former neighbor’s disappearance thirty years a before.

Mandy and her husband Steve were the Green’s neighbor’s, and Isla’s father, Joe, told the police that they moved away together, but it appear Joe may have been the last person to see Mandy alive. In 1997, now that Mandy’s own father has died, her brother hasn’t been able to trace her for her part of the inheritance. In fact, he hasn’t heard from her in the past thirty years.

In 1967, Isla’s mother, Louisa, is homesick for the England she left when she and Joe emigrated to Australia. Mandy and Louisa have become friends, and Mandy watched little Isla while Louisa went out to work. Mandy’s husband was a police officer whose job had taken its toll on him emotionally.

With her father under suspicion and his drinking out of control, Isla searches for the secrets each couple hid all those years ago, determined to find the truth about Mandy’s disappearance, and about her father.

Handing the tough subject of aboriginal children under Australia’s colonial habits adds a sense of tension to the plot and increases the emotion. Will Isla find out the truth? And when she does, will she be able to handle it?

An accomplished debut with finely drawn, realistic characters. Highly recommended.