Kate van Hooft
We See the Stars

Kids at school say Simon is “weird”. His brother Davey questions why he never speaks. Grandma secretly takes him to various doctors, while Mum won’t get out of bed. Cassie, his first friend in years, affectionately calls him “numpty”. In Simon’s brain, however, all his focus is required to keep chaos at bay. Borders between inside and outside are permeable: dust triggers asthma that flaps like a bird caught in his rib cage, a reassuring touch on the shoulder scalds, a breeze on his sweaty limbs makes storm clouds gather around his shoulders.

An autistic child’s voice grants the fiction writer an ability to render the everyday anew, in characters who feel too acutely. One can’t help but recall Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and, more pointedly here, Sofie Laguna’s Miles Franklin-winning The Eye of the Sheep.

Where The Eye of the Sheep’s Jimmy radiates wild energy outwards, Simon’s electricity gets internalised. When Simon is overwhelmed, he feels a swarm of bees awaken: “A couple of bees flew out of the honeycomb, which had got so big it had spread out of my heart and had stuck itself to the inside of some of my ribs, and I felt some of the honey leak out and into my blood.”

Simon’s silence makes him a kind of mirror for those around him. His kindly teacher Ms Hilcombe slowly confesses her past – “It’s a rare thing to be around someone who just listens”, she tells him – and, vice versa, this reassuring maternal figure gives Simon space to speak. So when Ms Hilcombe disappears, it unlocks the sadness surrounding his mother’s withdrawal. Forging against the flooding memories, he’s determined to find his teacher.

The Vietnam War-era setting mostly seems a plot device: were the novel to be set today, Simon need only google for answers. Yet his sleuthing is complicated by the bleed between reality and fantasy. Imaginary friends Superman and a neighbouring scarecrow are the only ones prepared to join Simon’s quest, bestowing a brave and tantalising narrative ambiguity.

The remarkable voice of Laguna’s protagonist Jimmy, which elevated The Eye of the Sheep beyond a familiar tale of suburban anguish, sets an impassable bar, making comparisons unfair for this debut author. We See the Stars is a competent and intriguing story, but it doesn’t quite transcend customary tropes of Australian fiction: a country town, a painful history, an outcast, a mystery.  TM

Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2018 as "Kate van Hooft, We See the Stars". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: TM