Monday, 3 December 2018

Book review: Boy, Lost, Kristina Olsson (2013)

The first thing I have to say about this book is that it desperately needs an introduction. It reads like a novel but it’s not, it’s a memoir that chronicles the life of the author’s mother. I had to go to Wikipedia to find this information after a few pages of reading, and a few pages of complete confusion. So, first-up, it’s non-fiction. And Olsson is Australian, although her biological father was from Sweden. If you don’t know that this is non-fiction, nothing makes sense because then the emotions that the book retails in just seem cheap and overblown and it looks like a publisher’s mistake. Possibly good for the chick-lit market, but certainly no prize winner.

Once you know that what you are reading is meant to be non-fiction you immediately come up against another problem. How could a woman whose own memories of her mother were partial at best have access to minute details captured in her mother’s consciousness, and how could she have rendered them in the narrative, down to the way that her mother felt when she got off the train in Townsville, having caught the train north from Brisbane and from her childhood, and having made her way to the shop operated by the man she wanted to marry?

It’s all so involved. Olsson goes to meet with her aunts to talk about her mother but these passages bleed into her mother’s memories of working in the café in Brisbane where Michael (the Greek immigrant who would invite her mother to move her north, and who would end up stealing her son from her), visited her. And all the feelings these scenes invoke merge with the writer’s feelings about her mother, feelings remembered from her own childhood.

There is an uncertain role for the author in this messy tale, it strikes me, and an ambitious but probably questionable tendency to visualise things that the author could never have really known for a fact. It’s a shame she felt she had to use this method to get her message across, and that she could not rather rely on a more accurate account of what she actually knew. I felt that if she could fictionalise in this way – to imagine, for example, the things her mother saw while walking down the street from the train in Townsville to Michael’s café – how can we trust that what she is writing is actual fact, or something else entirely? Faction, perhaps?

The author is not quite sure, furthermore, if she’s writing about herself and her feelings about her mother, or if she’s writing about her mother and her mother’s feelings about her grandmother. Lots of feelings, without doubt, but something like a lack of delineation separating one thing from the other. It’s all a bit confusing for the reader. It reminds me somehow of the claims in favour of inherited trauma that some people put forward to justify poor outcomes for children in the Aboriginal community.

Needless to say, I didn’t finish this book. It’s probably ungenerous of me to say but it struck me as being a strong contender for a prize for victim porn. A battered wife. Struggling, working class parents. A cruel, unfeeling husband. All well and good and deserving of a recount, for sure. But I wondered at the ability of the author to separate her own feelings from those that were experienced by her mother. Feelings, in turn, that the author pretends to have a comprehensive grasp of. This book displays a troubling lack of definition in its conception. This is a major problem for a work of this nature. For me, it was an unconvincing read.

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