Some books seem to shift shape while you’re reading them. Sometimes it really is the book that changes direction during its narrative, but other times it’s because you, as a reader, adjust your concept of what it is you’re reading as you go along.
Boy, Lost was such a book for me. To be honest, I started reading it thinking that it was a fiction book narrated in the first-person, beautifully told, with the crystalline clarity of authenticity. It was only when some facts seemed so concrete and so banal that I started to wonder if it was non-fiction instead. I turned to the back cover, and sure enough- there it was, ‘Non-fiction/Memoir’. And I obviously don’t look hard enough at the front covers of the books I read, because under the title, there it is again: “A Family Memoir”. At the end of the book, Olsson explains how she came to write this book that she felt was not hers, initially, to write. It is her mother’s story, and her brother’s, and yet even untold it affected the whole family. In this book she is piecing it together and telling it for her family, with their blessing and at their request. In the closing pages she broadens her perspective beyond her family’s story to reflect on the historical and sociological phenomenon of ‘lost’ and stolen children among unmarried mothers and aboriginal mothers more generally.
Olsson’s mother Yvonne marries young- too young- to Michael, a Greek post-war immigrant. He takes her to far-north Queensland, where the veneer of a sensual, confident older man soon fractures to reveal a cruel, rigid and controlling man. In 1950 after enduring three years of marriage to him, the pregnant Yvonne takes her infant son and flees on the train. But Michael appears, takes their son from her arms, snarls a warning to her and leaves. Yvonne will not see her son for another forty years.
She remarries; she has other children.
This is the story my mother never told, not to us, the children who would grow up around it in the way that skin grows over a scratch. So we conjured it, guessed it from glances, from echoes, from phrases that snap in the air like a bird’s wing, and are gone. Fragments of a legend, that’s how it seemed, and it twisted through our childhood like a fiction we had read and half-forgotten; a story that belonged to others, not to us, and to another, long-ago time. As if the woman at its centre was not really our mother but a stranger, an unknowable version of her…. (p 3)
This is what we didn’t understand, not then: that the past had gripped and confounded her, stalked her dreams. That every day of her life after her son was taken, she would sift through the memory of it, every terrible second. Turning each in her hand, looking for ways she might have changed them. But always she would be stuck at the image of the man, her husband, the terrible smile as he entered the train carriage, walked towards her, pulled Peter from her arms. When she dreamed of her lost son she would dream of his father. He would always be walking towards her, wearing that smile. (p. 4)
She was deflected from taking action by people who told her that her infant son would have a better life with his father than he would with her, a single-mother and waitress. He would live like a little Greek prince, they said, basking in the glory of being a Greek son during the 1950s. He didn’t. Instead, Peter had a spare, sad life. He was too young to remember his mother, but the past had gripped and confounded him and stalked his dreams, as well.
I very much enjoyed this book, even though it utilizes two of the stylistic techniques that I usually dislike: very short chapters and use of the present tense. The stories of Yvonne and Peter are alternated, moving forward chronologically, but not touching each other for much of the book. Interwoven between their two stories are Olsson’s own reflections on the childhoods of Sharon, her older half- sister (full sister to Peter) and several brothers, as they circle warily this fracture in their family. Each section is only a few pages in length. I usually dislike such a ruptured narrative, seeing it as a cop-out from having to tie the narrative together in a logical and pragmatic sense, but in this book it works. There are abrupt stops, loose ends and silences throughout all their stories, and the structure reflects that well.
The present tense is perhaps more problematic. In her ANZLitLovers blog Lisa Hill recently referenced some observations by the writer Dorothy Johnston about the ubiquitous use of present tense in recently-published books. I acknowledge that the present tense brings a sense of immediacy and contingency to the writing, but I find it rather suffocating and anxiety-producing. This book IS, however, an anxious, hand-wringing book, and I think that the present tense works well here.
The author has inserted herself into the narrative the whole way through the book, but in the closing pages she steps into the light completely. She is at pains to answer the question that has tortured both her mother and her brother: why didn’t her mother try harder to get him back? Her mother’s story of the lost – no, taken- child was replicated in the stories of unmarried mothers, not good enough mothers, Aboriginal mothers. I think that she provides as good an answer as can be made: that, in L.P. Hartley’s words, the past was a different country, and they did do things differently then.
But that is somewhat of a get-out clause. While recognizing the pressures and constraints that might have caused people to act as they did, she does not downplay the deep sense of loss that exists at the heart of her family. Things and people can be re-located and re-identified, but events have moved on and the past cannot be recaptured. Some losses are never truly found again.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.