Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir

By Kristina Olsson UQP

Kristina Olsson’s mother lost her infant son, Peter,when he was snatched from her arms as she boarded a train in the hot summer of 1950. She was young and frightened, trying to escape a brutal marriage, but despite the violence and cruelty she’d endured, she was not prepared for this final blow, this breathtaking punishment. Yvonne would not see her son again for nearly 40 years.

Kristina was the first child of her mother’s subsequent, much gentler marriage and, like her siblings, grew up unaware of the reasons behind her mother’s sorrow, though Peter’s absence resounded through the family, marking each one. Yvonne dreamt of her son by day and by night, while Peter grew up a thousand miles and a lifetime away, dreaming of his missing mother.

Boy, Lost tells how their lives proceeded from that shattering moment, the grief and shame that stalked them, what they lost and what they salvaged. But it is also the story of a family, the cascade of grief and guilt through generations, and the endurance of memory and faith.

Kristina Olsson

Kristina Olsson is the author of two novels, In One Skin and the award-winning The China Garden, the biography Kilroy Was Here and the memoir Boy, Lost, which won several national literary awards and was shortlisted for the 2014 Stella Prize. She is currently completing her third novel. Kristina lives in Brisbane.

Judges' report

Kristina Olsson’s story of her half-brother Peter, stolen by his father from his mother’s arms, is a beautifully understated family memoir in which the writer barely features: this is the story of Peter and his mother. Told compassionately and even-handedly, it follows Peter from his birth in 1948 through a difficult childhood of abuse, illness and homelessness, a gradual finding of his adult feet, an eventual reunion with his mother, and its less than happy aftermath. It also tracks the life of Peter and Kristina’s mother, Yvonne, showing her caught up in a situation she could neither understand nor control.

The book reflects the social history of Australia in the 1950s: the lack of accountability in cases of domestic violence, the tolerance of gambling, the lack of freedom that was women’s lot in the decade before the Pill and the rise of second-wave feminism, the ravages of the polio epidemic. Peter’s childhood is shaped first by the cultural tensions of a Greek–Australian marriage in the wave of postwar immigration, and then by the effects of polio, which he contracts only a couple of years before the availability of the vaccine that would have saved him. Much of the power of this book lies in the way that it reflects the fates of all children lost to a parent or parents, whether through familial dysfunction, government policy or personal tragedy, and that lifts it beyond the level of merely personal memoir to give it some of the force of fable and folktale.