‘Why did no one help?’ This was the question Kristina Olsson reflexively asked at the 2015 Perth Writers Festival, at a panel discussing her memoir, Boy, Lost. It was also the question that haunted me as I read this book, winner of the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards and on the shortlist for the 2014 Stella Prize. In a sense, this is more than the story of Olsson’s beautiful mother Yvonne and her stoic half-brother Peter – this is the story of Australia in the 1950s; the same period romanticised by John Howard and the current Prime Minister as a time of mateship and heroism and optimism. It was also a time of cruelty and neglect and looking the other way. It was a time when children were institutionalised and abused, when neighbours pitied but dared not intervene in marital ‘disputes,’ when the real heroes were the women and children who survived despite attempts to annihilate them.
This story of Olsson’s mother and her brutal first marriage, and the boy who was lost to her for forty years is beautifully written. The stark sentences gutted me with their power. On page 2 – ‘ 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.’ And a short while later, on page 6, describing the first time 17 year old Yvonne sees 34 year old Michael and foreshadowing the doomed relationship, there’s this: ‘She doesn’t stand a chance.’
Olsson says her mother was a woman of ‘infinite tenderness and quiet fury.’ As children they learned not to provoke that fury, although when Kristin and her sister Sharon were teenagers, their mother talked quietly, furiously, about self-control and risk-taking. ‘This is what she tells us when we are in our teens: that we will be fought for, will be physically restrained if need be, if the situation demands it.’ It’s not so different from the lectures I remember giving my own daughter when she became a teenager, more than twenty years after Yvonne lectured her own daughters. Mothering through the ages and between cultures remains essentially the same, I think.
This is a story of love and grief and abuse and the wisdom that comes with surviving and forgiving. Yvonne’s yearning for her lost son seeps into her life with her other sons and daughters and the husband whose devotion sustained her. And that son whose life on the streets and within institutions still did not weaken his belief that a loving mother waited for him, somewhere. Their reunion was just one of a dozen times I had to put the book down and absorb the intimacy and sorrow of what I was reading. This is a powerful, lyrical exploration of how families love and hate and break and heal. Unflinching, ethical and unsentimental, I recommend it highly.
My second book review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge