All Australian reads this month…
The Golden Age, Joan London
Hungarian Jews, Frank and his parents survived World War II only for Frank to be crippled by polio shortly after they emigrated to Australia. This novel is about the children’s treatment home where 13 year old Frank lives while he’s in rehab. A major theme is the maturity of the children there and the emotional burdens they carry on behalf of their parents as well as having to find their own psychological fuel for the task of learning to walk again and preparing for life with a disability in the wider world. The book’s been described as a love story between Frank and Elsa, one of the other patients, but there are all sorts of layers to the meaning of love in this book. There’s a shifting of boundaries and the meaning of family for those in the home including the nurses and it’s a bit of a melting pot of cross-cultural experiences as new Australians are mixed in with upper classes — after all, polio doesn’t discriminate. This book had the potential to be very heavy but Frank is also a budding poet and his little compositions bring a quiet sophistication which belies both his years and his situation.
The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion
Don Tillman is a genetics professor who is asked to do a lecture at a school on Aspergers syndrome, and at that meeting he has a conversation about how to detect undiagnosed adults with Aspergers. The irony that he probably is one eludes him, but the conversation sparks an idea about the usefulness of surveys and he decides that instead of dating, he will create a survey called ‘The Wife Project’ by which he will screen out unsuitable women e.g. women who smoke, do not cook, or think ice cream flavors are legitimate! Rosie is a PhD student who didn’t do the test and would never have passed, but by a series of accidents they end up spending time together and that is very confusing for Don! Reading this novel is a bit like watching Big Bang Theory from Sheldon’s perspective, which is a great exercise in empathy as we see just how disordered the world we see as normal appears to Don.
Daughters of Mars, Tom Keneally
Two Aussie sisters volunteer as nurses in the First World War. Their unsureness of themselves and their own relationship makes them seem aloof to others but over time they develop a kind of pseudo-family among the other nurses and within that discover their own sisterhood for the first time. A constant theme, and the note on which the novel ends, is the fragility and interconnectedness of life and relationships, not just in war time, but brought into sharper focus by it. As historical fiction, there’s much this novel picks up on, from the hope in 1915 that it would be the last year of the war, to the medical advancements made, to the injustices the nurses were subjected to, to the ravages of influenza even among the healthy or unwounded. What I most enjoyed about this book, though, was its length. There’s a great satisfaction to only being halfway through a book after some weeks, neither feeling urgency to finish the story, nor boredom with the characters or pace.
Boy, Lost, Kristina Olsson
This memoir is the story of Kristina Olsson’s mother and brother, separated when her mother Yvonne tried to run away from her abusive husband but he kept the baby boy, Peter. Their stories are told side by side as Yvonne tries to get on with life, erecting new barriers in her heart to protect her from her grief and guilt, and as Peter is also abused by his father, the State, and various other characters as well as being struck by polio. It’s a story of both of their powerlessness and how even reunion can not undo the damage. There are glimmers of hope, and the resilience of both characters is extraordinary, but these are broken people in an unjust world and ultimately they can’t overcome this tragedy.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.