Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott


This went on my list of books to read some months ago, but it moved it when I noted how much Kim of Reading Matters enjoyed it recently. First published in 1963 this is the story of a boy whose mother died shortly after he was born, brought up by his aunts in Sydney during the Depression. He is known as P.S., so anointed by his mother when she knew she would not survive. in her view he would be all that others had of her after she was gone.

When we meet, he is six years old and has been cared for by the unimaginative, plodding Lila and her husband George. P.S. spends the occasional day with Vere, a flamboyant character who always makes him laugh. Another sister, Agnes, spends all her time and energy at the Temple of Everlasting Love preparing for the end of the world, expected to arrive in a few months. Sinden, P.S.'s late mother, said, "You should only listen to every nineteenth thing Agnes says but then you should listen very carefully." And finally there's Vanessa, the beautiful sister who latched onto an aunt with plenty of money. They live in London, but the tale begins when Vanessa decided it was time to come back to Sydney and make P.S. her own.

The locations in Sydney, in particular ferries from Circular Quay feature in the book so that occasionally map consultation is in order. Agnes' Temple is near Balmoral Bay and she mentions hearing the zoo animals. It was nice to note on the map that the Taronga Zoo is very close. The characters have that zany quality that I associate with characters in Australian novels. 

So this is the story of a custody dispute, one of my least favorite plot lines. It did make me a bit squirmy, but it wasn't intolerable as the characters are all so odd as to be unreal. According to Wikipedia the author was the subject of a fierce custody battle by his aunts. Knowing that makes the sections told from the point of view of the child more poignant. Elliott left Australia in 1948 and later became an American citizen. He wrote more than 30 plays for "the Golden Age of live television dramas," as Wikipedia has it. 

Sumner Locke Elliott, Careful, He Might Hear You, Harper & Row, 1963, 339 pages. Available at the UVa library and from Amazon. 

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1 comment


  • Hi Charlotte:)
    It’s true that it’s about a custody battle, and it does show the pain that children feel when they are being asked to choose between two people they love, but it’s also about the tension between providing a child with a sense of security v a sense of adventure. I feel that today’s helicopter parents have got the balance wrong so this novel is still relevant today.


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