Of a Boy (published as What the Birds See outside of Australia) is one of prolific Australian author Sonya Hartnett’s earlier stories. Sonya Hartnett is best known for her books for young adults, although she also writes for children and adults. I’m a latecomer to her work having only read Golden Boys previously, but am a fan and intend to make my way through her work.
Of a Boy brought back every terrible memory from childhood, from being unhappy because of bullying, worrying about not fitting in, to thinking I was unloved and feeling frightened of being abandoned.
Sonya Hartnett’s writing is clear and simple and very, very good. Of a Boy won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Age Book of the Year in 2003.
The story is set in an Australian suburb in the 1970’s, where three small children set off to their local milkbar to buy ice-creams one day and were never seen again. The children’s disappearance shocked and frightened their community, including a nine-year old boy, Adrian, who was dumped on his grandmother after his mother was deemed unfit to look after him. Adrian is the loneliest, saddest little boy around. He is in trouble all the time with his grandmother, who seems to be unable to show Adrian that she loves him. My heart went out to this poor little character.
In Adrian’s grandmother’s defense, she was grieving her husband when Adrian came to live with her. She was also looking forward to a retirement free of obligations, after looking after her sick husband for many years, so resented Adrian for tying her down again even though she knew he is not to blame for their family’s circumstances.
Adrian suffers horribly at school. He lacks confidence and struggles to find friends. Children in this story are just as cruel as children are in real life, and being different to the other children is a licence to be picked on.
Eventually Adrian makes friends with the girl who lives across the road. She has her own cross to bear in the form of a mother who is dying. The story ends with Adrian and Nicole searching for the three missing children, when things comes to a shocking and tragic end. I had to read the last pages twice, because on my first read I couldn’t take in what happened to Adrian at the conclusion of the story.
In Of a Boy Sonya Hartnett tells exactly how it is to be a lonely, frightened and sad child. This story may not be for everyone, but it is exceptionally well told.