How did Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett escape my attention in the decade since it was first published? I have just finished it and I am shaking like a leaf.
The year is 1977, and Adrian is nine. He lives with his gran and his uncle Rory; his best friend is Clinton Tull. He loves to draw and he wants a dog; he’s afraid of quicksand and self-combustion. Adrian watches his suburban world, but there is much he cannot understand. He does not, for instance, know why three neighbourhood children might set out to buy ice-cream and never come back home…
I read this book with a mother’s grief as my constant companion. Grief over the missing children. Grief for Adrian – separated from his mother and feeling so alone in the world. It was in fact Adrian’s loneliness, combined with that special brand of self-centred pragmatism that kids have, that I found incredibly heartbreaking. If you’ve ever observed a child sitting alone in a playground, you’ll know what I mean.
“Adrian is unfailingly one of the last to be selected, left waiting with the fat boy and the immigrant. Adrian is the runt. But he takes the humiliation in good stead, and always feels a squeeze of pleasure when his name is finally called.”
And of being separated from his mother –
“Adrian has never thought that what happened to him had been cruel – children inhabit an animalistic world, and accept with grace its harsh rules. He never considered anyone to blame but himself, really. But he’d been glad of the gift of anonymity that the new school gave him: at just eight years of age, he had started over again.”
Hartnett’s writing style is sparse, parred back but incredibly emotive. Seemingly insignificant details build the bigger picture. For example, Adrian reflects on a news item about the missing children, which showed their distraught parents –
“Veronica, Zoe, Christopher: it seems foreign and amazing, to Adrian, to think that someone might need someone else so very very much.”
and on his loneliness –
“The weekend flows ahead of him like a deep and lazy river. The past few days have chewed a great chunk from him, like the bite of a shark – he feels exhausted from the sheer effort of living through those massive unfriendly hours. But the weekend is here now, come to his rescue: he wishes he could slow it down, that it could stay Friday night for years, until he was older and brave.”
The main characters are impecably drawn. Adrian’s grandmother, Beattie, who feels she is too old and tired to be a parent again and yet makes small concessions for Adrian such as letting him have a huge bowl of ice cream in front of the television each night.
Adrian’s relationship with his friend, Clinton, is so perfectly depicted that it’s impossible not to relate it to one’s own experiences.
“He has a best friend, another unathletic specimen: Clinton Tull, whose glasses are thick enough to hold back the tide….The two boys became friends over a top-of-the-range tin of Derwent pencils: Clinton owned them, but Adrian could harness their brilliance.”
I found this book incredibly moving, perhaps partly because my own nine-year-old son was at what you might call a ‘social-crossroads’ at school last year. One morning, after I had dropped him off at school, I remembered I had to visit the school office, and turned back. My son thought I had gone. I observed him put his bag down, walk to the other side of the asphalt, return to his bag, have a drink, walk to the other side of the asphalt again, all the while surreptitiously casing the place for kids he could join in with. It unfolded in less than a minute, but for me, it was a heartbreaking minute. It’s probably insignificant in my son’s life but for a parent, observing that uncertainty is gut-wrenching. Needless to say, when I read this about Adrian –
“Inside himself he’s crawling, though, flailing in quicksands of anguish. He does not know what he’s going to do. He shifts on his perch, watching cars on the road. A ghost of himself is proud that he sits, head up, with dignity. No one watching would guess how he feels. There are years of this life ahead of him. Just one year is a long time, unfathomable. His lips move silently as he counts the cars passing, for want of something to do.”
– it made me cry. Because of course we can guess how he feels.
There is so much more I could say about the theme of mother and child that runs through this book but I don’t want to give too much away. Beattie and Marta, Beattie and Rory, Adrian and his own mother, Clinton and his indulgent and loving mother, the neighbours who Adrian befriends with their sick (and possibly dying) mother, the mentions of a nearby institution for ‘abandoned’ children. Geez, it has ‘Year 12 text’ written all over it!
Some final details – I believe that the section about the missing children in Of a Boy is based on the real-life Beaumont case.
Of a Boy won the 2003 The Age Book of the Year and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize. It was shortlisted for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award, the 2003 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award and the 2003 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. It was long listed for the 2003 Orange Prize for Fiction. In the US and UK, Of a Boy is published under the name What the Birds See.
Read Of a Boy with a good old-fashioned toasted cheese sandwich (jaffle style, seventies style).
5/5 Simply one of the most moving books I have read in a very long time. Of a Boy has also found a place in my list of favourite books of all time.