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Of a Boy – In which Andy (finally and reluctantly) reads a book by Sonya Hartnett. And is pleasantly surprised

May 20, 2015

Pleasantly surprised is a bit of an understatement, actually.

Netty had her reasons for not wanting to read Lolita, and they are legitimate, if arguable. My reasons for not wanting to read anything by Sonya Hartnett are so laughably illegitimate as to be unworthy of an argument: In 2010 I was invited to write a series of (what I now realise were, along with most of what I write on this blog, laughably execrable) posts about the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. One of those posts was about a session involving Hartnett, in which she and a couple of other writers discussed their childhood reading. One of the writers Hartnett mentioned was John Wyndham, a childhood favourite of mine, and while she was nostalgically fond she also called him sexist, which I found odd, given two of his best books, Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids, contain very strong female characters, and Trouble with Lichen is about a male-and-female duo of microbiologists. In my blog I took (not terribly serious) exception to Hartnett’s comments and called her “rude”. Hartnett took (apparently quite terribly serious) exception to this, responded with a comment longer than the few sentences I’d dedicated to her views on Wyndham, and left me with the impression that she was the sort of slightly precious, slightly self-important writer I’d prefer not to read. So I didn’t. Until Netty insisted that if we were going to read some creepy paedophile filth by some defector creep from Russia then we were damn well going to read Hartnett and not some other female Australian writer such as Amy Witting or Helen Garner (my suggestions).

And while I’m not completely chuffed that Netty gave in on Lolita, I am very glad I gave in on Hartnett.

Of a Boy is set in 1977. The news is full of the disappearance of three young children – two sisters and their younger brother – on the streets of an Australian suburb. Nine-year-old Adrian, being raised by his gran though his selfish, disturbed mum and dad are both alive, absorbs the news of the disappearance, but goes through life as the slightly weird, rather lonely, rather too self-aware little boy that he is. When a new family move into the house across the road Adrian forms an odd, seesawing friendship with the oldest daughter, Nicole, and their relationship becomes increasingly intertwined with the disappearance of the three Metford children.

Adrian, in 1977, is nine. Hartnett was born in 1968. I was born in 1969, and lived in the northwestern suburbs of Melbourne from 1976-80. There were times when I wondered whether Adrian lived in Glenroy, seriously. The city in which Of a Boy takes place is never (as far as I and Netty can remember) specified, but it seems to me pretty obviously to be Melbourne, the city of Hartnett’s (and my) birth. Going down the street to buy lollies, trips to the local swimming pool, sleepovers at a friend’s place, dubious, shifting schoolyard loyalties – none of these things are specific to late ’70s Melbourne, but Hartnett saturates her story with a sense of time and place that sometimes left me dizzied. I spent godawful months wandering the grounds of Glenroy Primary School (I had a specific route) during lunchtime, having been abandoned by a group of kids I had thought were my friends who had suddenly decided I was Big Ears (and then later, and in hindsight rather hilariously, Odor Ears) and who refused to speak to me. Later they would speak to me again for a few months. And then they wouldn’t. Childhood is pretty seriously fucked up, and Hartnett captures that in a way I don’t think I’ve read before. The petty betrayals, the tentatively extended affection, the cruelty at once disparagingly despatched and monstrously sadistic – it’s okay, I don’t need therapy just yet, but memories? I’ve had a few.

Oh – and apparently, I have only discovered in writing this post, Glenroy Primary School no longer exists. Jeff Kennett’s work, I guess.

Hartnett’s ability to see things from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy, rather than, perhaps, from Nicole’s, is also astonishing. the feeling that someone who wasn’t at all like me had crawled into my nine-year-old brain was a bit freaky, on more than a few occasions.

There is much more to rave about in this book – the characters of grandma Beattie – so flawed, so hard, and in her knowledtge of her flaws and her rigidity so worthy of at least some forgiveness; and of Rory, Adrian’s deeply messed up, strangely wise, artistic uncle – but I’m afraid, precious, self-important blogger that I am, it was the stuff that resonated with me that I was keen to rave about.

So that’s what I’ve done.

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