KRISTINA OLSSON Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir. Reviewed by Paula Grunseit
This ‘shatteringly beautiful’ memoir of a mother forcibly separated from her baby son won the Non-Fiction prize at the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards.
It is the summer of 1950. On a railway station in Cairns, in broad daylight, an infant is snatched from his mother’s arms by her violent husband – an act which devastates an entire family and leaves decades of grief, suffering and loss in its wake. The mother and child will not be reunited for nearly 40 years, their secret remaining buried, locked away until permission has been given for it to be told:
… 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 … In the years before we’d learned some of the facts – the earlier marriage, the cruel husband, the stolen baby – but the flesh and bones of her life were buried with her in autumn-damp soil. What she left was a fine, opaque pattern like the ones she pinned over fabric to make our clothes, a movable outline that refused to be fixed.
In Boy, Lost, a memoir published many years after her mother Yvonne’s death, Kristina Olsson imagines her, 60 years earlier, as ‘an ingenue, an innocent … a naively beautiful girl [she had been compared to a young Elizabeth Taylor] from the poor and unformed outer suburbs of Brisbane’. At 17, she was swept off her feet by a dangerously handsome man twice her age who promised her the world. Michael, from the Greek island of Kythera, was ‘experienced, hardened, hungry’, and Yvonne had not known that beneath his charming exterior was another man – a violent abuser and hopeless gambler. In the cafés he owned and ran, his young wife would be slave labour.
At a session at the 2013 Byron Bay Writers’ Festival about family secrets and writing memoir in novelistic form, Olsson spoke about the fateful day her 19-year-old mother tried to take charge of her own life: ‘She was trying to escape that violence, full of shame, full of guilt, physically incredibly frail from the beatings that she’d taken and the treatment that her husband had meted out to her including starvation, neglect, throwing her down the steps; she’d miscarried – it was a real litany of hideous violence. This very brave act to get on a train with her child was her last chance for survival and I think now that I know the story more fully, I respect what an incredibly brave step it was.’
Speaking about what it was like to grow up in the shadow of secrets, Olsson said: ‘The story lay in my family very much like hidden treasure for a long time. I knew the story was off limits to me. Our mother’s life was not to be spoken of as we grew up. We had no idea that she’d lost a child. We knew we were growing up with a very attentive and loving mother but the certainty was that she was a sad mother. We all grew up, if not trying to make her happy, then trying to make her less unhappy. The force field that she put around the story, we kept; we certainly were trying to be good children; we didn’t want to upset her any more. As a writer, as a journalist, I knew that this story wasn’t to be written and it was the book that nearly didn’t get written. I wrote other novels that involved missing mothers or missing children or boys who were a bit odd or not quite right and I’d say to people, “No, my books aren’t autobiographical at all — they’re nothing to do with my life”.’
After being stolen from his mother, Peter, Olsson’s half-brother, was taken to live with his father and, contrary to what Yvonne imagined and what she had been told by lawyers and officials – that her boy would be treated like a Greek prince, would be given a wonderful life with everything he could ever want or need and would probably end up as a doctor or lawyer – the horrific reality of Peter’s life was something she could never have envisaged. Aged two, he contracted polio and had to wear a calliper. He endured abuse from his father and stepmother, painful medical interventions, an extremely brutal childhood in and out of institutions, being homeless and sleeping rough under Sydney’s greatest icon of progress – the Harbour Bridge.
Peter’s life takes on a kind of mythic quality when, at the age of six, he begins a hero’s quest of sorts, a lifelong pattern, repeatedly running away, trying to find the missing mother he knew was out there somewhere, the mother who also sought him, the missing piece of her. She had never given up on him, despite having rebuilt part of her life through her second marriage and a new family. The memoir’s two unfolding narratives trace Peter’s and Yvonne’s lives, each imprinted with the other’s absence, until remarkably, they intersect again:
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.
Their reunion is not an easy one – how could it be after all that had gone before, after a lifetime of separation, shame and guilt?
It wasn’t until several years after their mother’s death, when Peter asked Olsson to write the book, that she began considering it and even then, she said she ‘took a very big step backwards … Yes it felt too transgressive for a very long time. I think the moment I decided was when I realised that there’d been so much damage done by the secrecy of the story that I wanted the damage to stop there. For me, as a writer, getting the essential permissions [from family] was important and I hoped that by the story being told, the damage could stop, that the cascade of grief that we’d been part of wouldn’t keep cascading down to my children and their children. It really felt to me almost like a responsibility to tell the story.’
In trying to understand how the unthinkable happened on that day back in 1950s’ Cairns, Olsson contextualises the story culturally and historically by referring to the enduring impact of Australia’s history of stolen children – Aboriginal children, illegitimate children, the children of the poor. Olsson writes of those removals: ‘Someone else was entitled: someone white, someone married, someone rich.’ The role of officialdom and institutions, and attitudes towards women and motherhood, are also called to account.
Confronting truths are not avoided in Boy, Lost and while this harrowing story could, in other hands, so easily have spilled over into stomach-turning sentimentality, Olsson’s meticulously pared back, journalistic style masterfully weights the tender with the hard-hitting. The result is a shatteringly beautiful read, one not easily forgotten. I can’t recommend it highly enough, particularly to anyone aspiring to write memoir.
Kristina Olsson Boy Lost: A Family Memoir UQP 2013 PB 264pp $29.95
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.