I was late when I walked up to Kris Olsson’s book launch a few months ago in April (I’d missed the bus), and there was standing room only at the back of the café, while people milled on the footpath, smoking. It was autumn but, being Brisbane, it was still too warm for the jeans and boots that I was wearing.
Kris was launching her latest book, Boy, Lost, a memoir about her mother Yvonne who, as a young ingénue, was swept off her feet and carried up north by a man who turned out to be brutal. Just as she found enough courage to escape from him and to head back to Brisbane with their son, Yvonne’s husband tore Peter from her arms on the train.
The memoir is an imagining of the circumstances of Yvonne’s life, while charting the impact of that missing child upon Yvonne and her other children. To open the book at random is to be entranced by the surety of Kris’ writing, even as she describes distressing moments:
When you have five children and there are only four beneath your roof, running about the yard, then four is not enough. I wonder now that she didn’t explode more often. Not just in the privacy of her home but outside, at the corner shop, the doctor’s surgery, in the street, anywhere there were children and idle conversation and someone blithely asked her: And how many children do you have? The betrayal of numbers, whatever her reply (p. 159).
Some readers and critics might quibble with the fictional elements of memoir, but all memory is, in one way or another, a fiction – we can never reconstitute memory exactly as it happened. My impression of this work is that Kris, through conversations with family members and attention to photographic records, evokes personalities and events with sensitivity.
Throughout the narrative, which moves from present to past and back again, her use of detail grounds the era with which Yvonne’s trusting personality fused, and in which she tried to get herself back together. She goes to the public trustee’s office to get help from the law, and the man tells her, ‘after what his father’s done to keep him, he’ll be treated like a prince. He’ll be a doctor or a lawyer. He cocks his head. Or the child of an unmarried waitress. Is that the kind of life you want?’ (p. 75).
The irony of such sexism manifests through Peter’s downward trajectory of illness, running away, and the erratic affection of his father. He grows into adulthood and has a family, but is still destabilised by the loss of Yvonne, as she is by the loss of him, even after they find one another. When I saw Peter at Kris’ launch, I couldn’t hear what he said, except for the words ‘boy, found’, and perhaps that was enough, for his presence was amazing – it showed that, although the fractures in the family couldn’t heal neatly because of all that had been lost, he was back again, and he was real.
When Kris launched my novel (a year ago, today), my mother asked, as Entitlement was somewhat autobiographical, if Kris used autobiography in her own writing. I’d had no idea that Kris was writing this book at the time, and she diplomatically answered that, by about the third novel, you began to get an idea of what a writer’s themes and obsessions are. Certainly, her acclaimed novel The China Garden, has echoes of Boy, Lost, and having written two-thirds of the first draft of my third novel, I’m also finding a reflection of the themes of my previous two novels: love, belonging, and dead children (and yes, I’m disturbed by this too).
Kris is a deserving recipient, along with Angela Slatter and Patrick Holland, of a 2013 Queensland Writers Fellowship, which were awarded to three Queensland authors. When you read the following, you understand why:
There are children in the mango tree. Limbs against limbs, skin on bark. They are hiding, or they are presiding, or they are reading or fighting, among the hot green and leaves singing. It is summer, their chins and fingers run with mango juice. They climb, they splay over branches, hands and feet reaching for safety – they are testing solidity, a sticky embrace (p. 165).
Kids, mangoes, summer: it’s quintessential Queensland.
The Fellowships were established in the wake of Campbell Newman’s butchery of the literary community by, as his fist act of office, hacking away the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. Perhaps, given the outcry, the government realised that Queensland needs and appreciates its authors, as these fellowships are a partnership with the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland.
When Newman carved the funding, the tireless efforts of Claire Booth, Dr Stuart Glover and other hardworking and dedicated souls in our literary community meant that the awards survived. Through corporate sponsorship, and a crowd-funding campaign on Pozible, the awards are now the largest collection of independently managed literary prizes in Australia. Boy, Lost has been shortlisted for the University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award in these collection of prizes. However, the QLA still needs funds to support more writers and have another Pozible campaign on the go, which closes in three days. I urge all readers to give generously to get the funding across the line, and to support Queensland’s writers.
As I was at the back of the café at Kris’ launch, I was too far away to hear or read lips or generally follow what was going on, but if I’d been sitting at the front, I would have missed the innumerable people who were wiping their eyes as she spoke. This is an exquisitely written, moving piece of work and, even though I’m totally biased, it deserves to win at the Queensland Literary Awards on Wednesday.
Book details: Olsson, Kristina. Boy, Lost. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2013.
Purchased from Avid Reader.
This is my 11th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.