Friday, March 28, 2014

Reading Notes: Boy, Lost

This review is my second from the Stella shortlist. You can read my review of Burial Rites at The Shake

Kristina Olsson's book, Boy, Lost, is a memoir that is more than a memoir, a personal story with resonances far beyond the purely individual, a living, breathing case study of the far-reaching and long-lasting impacts of family violence, child theft, and what happens when you sunder children from their mothers.

That Olsson manages to make this both a compelling story in its own right and also a riveting commentary on broader social issues, while never forcing the narrative to carry moral messages beyond its capacity, is a tribute to her enormous facility as a writer, and the care, indeed love, with which she embraces her subjects.

That the subjects are her family makes the story more visceral but also, in many ways, harder to tell, and that she has managed to tell it so very well is the core achievement of this moving, powerful and memorable book.

Boy, Lost, is, in brief, the story of Kristina's mother, Yvonne: her ill-fated first marriage to illiterate Greek immigrant, Michael Preneas, which proves to be an abusive nightmare; her attempted flight, while secretly pregnant with a second child, with her infant son, Peter; Michael's effective kidnapping of Peter from her arms when on board the train that will carry her back to Brisbane; her attempts to get Peter back, thwarted by the legal and social structures within which she works and then blunted by the demands of caring for her daughter Sharon and her career; her second, happy, marriage, to Kristina's father, Arne Olsson, and the three children born to her in that marriage; and the shadow, the absence, that hangs always over her, even in her happiness. As Kristina puts it, the presence of four lively children never cancels out the awareness of the fifth, the absent one; there is no replacement or substition, just learning to mourn more quietly.

At the same time, this is also the story of Kristina's brother Peter, the lost boy of the title, and the brutal, neglected life he experiences with his father and later his stepmother. Peter's suffering, his undoubted abuse, is never sanitised or minimised in the story, but neither is it made THE story; Kristina never falls into that trap. The web she is weaving is complex and nuanced, but always honest, and always respectful, at its heart, of Peter as a person.

While Kristina occasionally lets some of her childhood confusion and angst towards her mother show, she never treats Peter anything other than gently. Partly, I suspect, this is because she only met him as an adult - their relationship has none of the slings and arrows of juvenilia to taint it. And partly it's just that women (some women?) often resent and love our mothers in  unequal measure, resentment riding high at one turn, overwhelming, fierce love at another.

Kristina's choice to tell the story in the present tense is an interesting one for a memoir, and I think it's mostly very effective, creating an immediacy that helps punch the emotion of the story home. Occasionally I found it distracting, but on the whole, I liked it as a narrative choice.

So what's the book about? It's about loss. It's about mother-child bonding. It's about family violence. It's about cultural dissonance. It's about the long fingers of family fracturing. It's about a boy, surviving abuse, becoming more than his circumstances. And above all, it's about a woman learning her mother as a woman, learning the story of that woman and being able to truly enter with empathy into that mental world.

"I cried for my mother then, not the dull self-pity I had wept with when she died, but a full and proper grief for what she had suffered. I knew something about the woman I was grieving..."

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Read it and see just how good a memoir can be in the hands of a skilled and engaged witer.

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