Review: Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson

[First published on the Wheeler Centre website, as part of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award series]

All memoir is a form of repair, a way of reassembling the past, word by word. So it is with Kristina Olsson’s cathartic Boy, Lost.

Billed as a family memoir, it isn’t until the Afterword that the focus shifts to Olsson and we really hear her voice. There, she reflects on the cover image for her 2010 Barbara Jefferis award-winning novel, The China Garden, which shows the smashed pieces of a tea cup, linked by the imprint of a single flower. In the novel, the china is buried in the earth by a mother grieving for her lost child.

‘The story, the one you have in your hands,’ writes Olsson in the Afterward to Boy, Lost, ‘is my family’s broken cup.’ It’s fitting that Olsson frames her memoir in poetic terms as it is largely pieced together through metaphor. Her hope is noble and ambitious: Olsson wishes to gather together the scattered shards of her family’s past and ‘return the cup to [her] family, whole’.

In contrast, the cover for Boy, Lost – a young boy following train tracks into a murky distance – hints at the lasting damage. That boy represents Peter, her mother’s first-born and Olsson’s half-brother. The abduction of two-year-old Peter by his abusive father at a Queensland railway station in 1950 is the point of fracture, and where the story begins. Alternating chapters follow the lives of mother and son who wouldn’t be reunited for nearly 40 years.

For Peter, the intervening years are marked by pain: his battle with polio and father’s beatings, as well as the bullying and molestation inflicted on him during periodic stays in children’s wards. For her mother, the pain is internal: sadness silences her, guilt and an indifferent welfare system harden her, emotionally stunting her second marriage and relationships with her subsequent children.

While her mother spent most of her life trying to forget her tragic youth, it’s clear Olsson grew up thinking long and hard about it. ‘In our bodies,’ Olsson reflects ‘we’d all felt the shadow of her injury and were marked by it at birth.’

Olsson’s small family isn’t alone in their grief, of course. The ongoing commissions of inquiry into those ‘Forgotten Australians’ left traumatised by their mistreatment at the hands of state and religious institutions over the last century add a haunting backdrop to the memoir.

Boy, Lost is devastating in parts: the hurt felt by mother and son radiates through Olsson’s delicate turn of phrase. This is not to say Olsson’s book is unrelentingly bleak – Peter’s long journey from victim to survivor, and tentative reunion with his mother, are deeply touching. There are no easy solutions, however, and it’s sadly obvious that for Olsson’s family, and many other abuse survivors and their relatives, the cracks may always remain, however faint.

The heartache reaches a crescendo when Olsson, having read through Peter’s state records and spoken with other victims, telephones him and breaks down. ‘It’s not fair,’ she cries into the receiver. Turn on the news and hear any one of the many victim impact statements read aloud in Parliament – the shocking accounts of forced adoption and institutional neglect – and you too should be moved to tears. She’s right: It’s not fair, not fair at all.

Boy, Lost is an important account of a shameful time in Australia’s modern history, which is now finally receiving public awareness. It is a book that gives voice to the many who were silenced and simultaneously speaks to us all – our shared pain, our shared guilt.