Boy, Lost – a compelling memoir

April 5, 2016 at 11:57 pm | Posted in Australian memoir, Kristina Olsson | Leave a comment

Boy,LostCroppedJPGBoy, Lost (University of Queensland Press, 2013) is a fascinating and compelling memoir by Kristina Olsson and her luminous prose elevates it to an even higher level. This book feels transcendent with a mother’s love. The author gains profound insight on her journey to trace the steps of her mother and of her lost brother, and she shares these with her readers in a gripping narrative.

As Yvonne, the author’s mother, boarded a train on Cairns railway station in 1950, attempting to escape from a brutal marriage, her abusive husband appeared and snatched her baby son Peter from her arms.

Later the authorities persuaded Yvonne that the boy was better off with his father and that in any case, as a deserting wife, she had no rights, nor any means of financial support. Yvonne was pregnant with a second child when she escaped. Some months later, Peter’s sister (the author’s older half-sister) is born ‘to a mother already grieving the things she cannot give her: a father, a brother, a home.’ (p. 68)

Young Peter’s fate is interwoven through Yvonne’s story and, without a moment’s sentimentality in the telling or in Peter’s attitude, it is heart-rending in its injustice. Peter endures disruption, dislocation, neglect and severe illness. At one stage he finds a photo of his mother and he learns her name. He never stops searching for her, beginning with hopping on a train to Sydney’s bustling Central railway station when he is seven and asking strangers if they know his mother and where she is.

Over the years, running away from orphanages and borstals, he repeatedly tries to find Yvonne. The files – actual court transcripts, Police records, letters from social workers etc – all confirm that he is ‘a good type of lad … well mannered, keeps himself clean and tidy and mixes well with the other boys…’ but when reunited with his father he suffers cruelty and exploitation, and he perseveres in his pattern of running away. ‘The one notion that pulls him through, like a bright thread he can follow in the dark, is that somewhere he has a real mother.’ (p. 163) It is decades until he finds her.

Although nothing about Yvonne’s loss of her first-born is articulated to her other children, the unspoken has a way of being felt. Such a deep secret and the sadness sometimes apparent on their mother’s face stains them like a watermark.

The narration is a perfectly judged balance of simplicity and lyricism that gives it great emotional power. Olsson imagines the scene on that fateful day, long before she was born:

“I am trying to make out the shape of her … She had fine-shaped ankles, beautiful all her life. That morning sixty years ago they carried her, the baby, a suitcase, the weight of all her fear and courage, along this strip of bitumen that might be a line drawn between her two selves: the one naïve and hopeful, the other bitter and self-condemning, grieving, unable to forgive herself or the world for the loss of her child. I have spent much of my life trying to impress the one, and now I am trying to understand the other.”

Part of the book’s power comes from the author widening the context from the experiences of one family to Australian society at the time, subtly and succinctly giving readers an awareness of the pain and dislocation of other children (Aboriginal, those born to unmarried mothers or mothers judged as simply too poor) taken and neglected or abused in a paternalistic, misguided social system.

Olsson’s writing enables her readers to open their hearts to the love, endurance and eventual second chance of one mother and her family and also to the possible painful journeys taken by other families in similar situations. In lyrically expressing the details of one family’s story, she makes us aware of the struggles of humanity and the vital importance to us all of love, acceptance and a sense of belonging.

The book won the 2013 Queensland Literary Award and was shortlisted for many other prizes, including the 2014 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.

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