A Long Way Home (Lion) by Saroo Brierley, Larry Buttrose (ghostwriter)

I saw the film when it was on at the cinema about a year ago and like everyone who has seen it, I thought it was extremely moving. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a 5-year-old boy who is out with his teenage brother, who has told him to wait for him at a quiet train station near their home, and feeling tired, he climbs into an empty carriage, falls asleep and when he awakes, it is moving, the carriage locked and he will be transported, far, far from his home, which he won’t see for another 25 years.

The book only confirms how incredible and moving his story is, on top of the emotion it provokes, was the amazement at how many situations 5-year-old Saroo got into that he was miraculously saved from, often by his own well-honed instinct, other times sheer luck, and occasionally, surely, divine intervention.

Like befriending the teenage boy he trusted and went home with, who would be the first person to make an intervention on his behalf that would lead him to 25 years of safety, before he could find his way back home and be reunited with his family again. In the meantime he would spend those 25 years in a middle class Australian family in Hobart, Tasmania – far from his culture and birth family, learning another language, getting an education and developing a way of life that would benefit them all by the time his story comes full circle.

It’s a bittersweet story with a thrilling beginning as he falls asleep in the wrong place at the wrong time and his life is hurtled, like a rocket capsule, into another hemisphere, with a few obstacles to overcome on the way.

It’s sad because he was a boy who became lost from his family in a large country, he had difficulty pronouncing the name of the town he came from (and even his own name) and in the city he arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata), he spent weeks riding trains hoping one of them might take him back. Nighttime brought an element of danger, and even in the day while having fun with other children in the river, danger was never far away, he would be rescued a couple of times that might have been life-threatening, had not well intended strangers come to his aid.

Saroo with his adoptive mother

The childless (through their own choice) couple that adopted him, were open and inclusive regarding his culture, furnishing his bedroom with a large map of India and items reminiscent of his country of birth, they joined an association connecting Indian families to their culture. However, unwanted memories could arrive unbidden, sometimes reconnecting with stories from India awakened his childhood trauma. He describes seeing the Hindi film Salaam Bombay:

Its images of the little boy trying to survive alone in a sprawling city, in the hope of returning to his mother, brought back disturbing memories so sharply that I wept in the dark cinema, my well-meaning parents unaware of the cause. Even sad music could set off emotional memories. Seeing or hearing babies cry also affected me strongly, but somehow the most emotional thing was seeing other families with lots of children. I suppose that even in my good fortune, they reminded me of what I had lost.

A few years later, his parents adopted another boy from India, who became his brother, the book doesn’t delve too deep into this relationship, however the film did bring out the contrast in their characters and the difficulty his parents, particularly his mother, who was a relatively quiet and calm woman, had in parenting him.

Mantosh and I were very different, partly because of the natural differences between our people, but also because of our different experiences in India. It’s one of the things that makes people who adopt children, especially from abroad, so brave: often the kids they’re taking in come with troubled backgrounds, having suffered in ways that make adjusting to their new life difficult, and which can be hard to understand and even harder to help. I was reticent and reserved; Mantosh, at least at first, was loud and disobedient. I wanted to please; he rebelled.

According to an interview, Mantosh was unhinged by the film, his protracted adoption wasn’t able to be finalised within the two month grace period the children’s home were given, so he was sent back to the large orphanage where lost or abandoned children would encounter all manner of youth, including bullies, criminals and abusers, the time he was obliged to spend there awaiting the administrative outcome scarred him physically and mentally. He didn’t have the good fortune of his brother, whose story is all the more remarkable for him having avoided abuse, though he was certainly close to encountering it, as his story shows.

“[His grandmother] couldn’t keep Mantosh in her care anymore, while he was waiting to come to Australia, once we’d accepted him. So he had to go back to [the orphanage] where he was burnt, raped, beaten, you name it. And I’m very bitter about that.” – Sue Brierley

There is most certainly a very different and equally important story to be told, if one follows Mantosh’s experience; it was interesting to listen to his mother speak on that in an interview recorded here. At least, she says, it did result in him beginning to open up more about his experiences and they were able to seek help for him, he represents the other side of adoption; the adoptive mother admitted they weren’t prepared for what it would mean to raise a child who’d been through such trauma, she didn’t have the support needed and experienced discrimination in the medical community when she did try to seek help.

When Saroo really becomes intent on tracking down his family, (another element that is much more vividly portrayed in the film) no one except his girlfriend knows how obsessed he has become, he has had periods of searching in the past, spurred on by meeting other students who grew up in India, who’d make guesses as to where he might come from based on his memories, but when, with the help of Google maps and tracing railway lines out of Calcutta, he began to spend hours every night doing his research, he kept it to himself, in ways and for reasons many adoptees will recognise.

I didn’t tell many people what I was doing, not even my parents. I was worried they might misunderstand my intentions: they might think that the intensity of my search revealed an unhappiness with the life they’d given me, or the way they’d raised me. I also didn’t want them to think that I was wasting time. So even as it took up more and more of my life, I kept it to myself.

He was fortunate to have such a supportive girlfriend, he felt she would have been within her rights to feel alone in their still-new relationship, he was treading a fine line and would catch her looking at him sometimes as though she thought he was crazy. He was driven, determined and you knew he wouldn’t give up until he’d found something he recognised, the memories and maps in his head so well preserved over the years, surely he would find them if he kept going.

Perhaps to some extent sharing something so fundamental to me strengthened our connection – and that came through when we talked about what it all meant to me. It wasn’t always easy to articulate, especially as I was trying to keep a lid on my expectations, trying to convince myself it was a fascinating exercise, not a deeply meaningful personal quest.

In the book, Saroo spends a lot of time rationalising and expressing his gratitude, it’s clear he doesn’t wish to hurt anyone in his portrayal of the story, he understands he treads the line between two families in a topic that is almost a cause, that attracts fierce activism especially on the part of those who are pro-adoption, however he also acknowledges what many adoptees need to hear, the aspect that was healed in him in taking this journey, by his perseverance.

Rightly so in his case, as he wasn’t abandoned or given up in the first place. The trauma his mother must have gone through in finally accepting that he had disappeared, and what strength and love, to have believed for so long he may return, so strongly she believed it that she refused to leave the town they lived in, to join her other children and be nearer them and their families.

After being lost, I’d been lucky enough to adopted by a loving family, and not only lived somewhere else, but had become someone else from the person I might have been had I stayed in India. I didn’t just live in Australia, I thought of myself as an Australian. I had a family home with the Brierleys and had made my own home in Hobart with my girlfriend Lisa. I knew I belonged and was loved, in those places.
But finding Khandwa and my Indian family also felt like coming home. Something about being in the place just felt right. I was loved here too, and belonged, in a way I’d not thought much about beforehand and found hard to explain. This was where I’d spent my first years, where my blood was. When it was time for me to return to Hobart – a time that came around far too quickly – I felt the wrench of leaving deeply.

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A Drop in the Ocean by Jenni Ogden

Book covers can be so hit and miss, but every so often one comes along that is so attractive you find yourself eagerly hoping that it’s a book that you’re going to love. And this one did not disappoint.

I started seeing this book mentioned on Goodreads and Twitter and when Jenni commented on one of my blog posts I visited her website and spent an evening looking at the pictures, reading her newsletters, learning a little about this remarkable woman who grew up in the South Island, New Zealand, became a neuropsychologist and now lives between two small islands in New Zealand and Australia.

DROP IN THE OCEAN3Jenni Ogden’s debut novel A Drop in the Ocean centres around Anna Fergusson, a 49-year-old woman not anticipating change in her life, whose controlled, familiar world is upended when her long-term research grant is casually rejected, throwing her into early retirement and the four scientists in her team into the harsh reality of insecure tenure.

The research I had been doing for the past twenty-four years – first for my PhD, then as a research assistant, and finally as the leader of the team – focused on various aspects of Huntington’s disease, a terrible genetically transmitted disorder that targets half the children of every parent who has the illness.

Although she had spent all these years studying and researching the disease, she had avoided dealing with the families, peering down a microscope rather than into the eyes of sufferers, making using of the team to carry out the fieldwork.

When the opportunity to spend a year on a tropical island in Australia was presented to her by a friend, she was initially dismissive, until the idea of finishing her latest paper and perhaps writing a book prompted her to reply to the advertisement.

For rent to a single or couple who want to escape to a tropical paradise. Basic cabin on tiny coral island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. AUD$250 a week; must agree to stay one year and look after small private campsite (five tents maximum). Starting date October 2008. For more information email lazylad at yahoo.com.au

Coral Cay Australia

The island was an eight hectare coral cay surrounded by a large coral reef, with few inhabitants, accessible by fishing boat or charter, only solar power and supplies brought in fortnightly.

Named Turtle Island, one of the locals was a ‘turtle whisperer’ named Tom, a researcher who tagged turtles, participated in turtle rodeos and kept pretty much to himself when not at sea with the graceful creatures.

While Anna planned to spend her days working on her memoir, the allure of the activity of the island and Tom made her restless, she became curious about him and the fieldwork he was doing. While part of her resisted the attraction, her instinct was stronger, pushing her out of the cottage and into his realm.

The novel places Anna and Tom on the same island where we observe their relationship develop, how they challenge aspects of each other, their relationship a conduit to them seeing themselves more clearly.

The novel is written in a familiar, comfortable style, Ogden’s sense of place is so strong, you will feel as though you are on the island with them all, seeing everything around you, anticipating the developments between characters, taking part in the daily activities and monitoring of the turtle season, witnessing their vulnerability to the elements.

The main characters are fully realised and brilliantly captured, Anna always in control, somewhat detached from people in her life and living far from her own family, has to let go to become close to Tom and through him will learn more about her own research and person than all her years of dedication and hard work had achieved.

A Drop in the Ocean is the perfect summer read, the quiet, shocking dilemma of losing a grant and the job that went with it, the flippant fantasy of leaving everything familiar for a tropical island and the reality of making a life and finding love, it’s engaging, thought-provoking, heartfelt and sun-filled. Highly recommended!

The Light Between Oceans

I begin reading with envy as M.L.Stedman’s playful yet adept metaphors slip off sentences, like droplets off the oars of a dinghy, each one plunging back into the ocean to collect another stream from which to compose those few extra words that create more than just mere description, revealing an image and inviting us deeper into the world she paints with words, an island hundreds of miles from civilisation, where only the two oceans, a grand light, the twinkling stars and the tall, elegant, imposing bearer of that light keep a young, newly married couple company.

There are times when the ocean is not the ocean – not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger: ferocity on a scale only the gods can summon. It hurls itself at the island, sending spray right over the top of the lighthouse, biting pieces off the cliff. And the sound is a roaring of a beast whose anger knows no limits. Those are the nights the light is needed most.

It is the early years after the first world war and many families have been affected by the loss of their sons, Tom survived the war but carries the guilt of a survivor who has seen too much and wishes they could have done more.  Isabel’s family is no stranger to the grief of losing not one but two sons, within days of each other, never quite giving up the illusion of hope that maybe it was all an error and one of them will return.

Tom accepts a job on Janus Rock, a lighthouse many miles out to sea, with visits to the mainland years apart, the island, the sea and that reassuring steadfast light his sole companions. Until Isobel joins him in wedlock and on the island will encounter her own form of grief, yearning for the child that never quite makes it into life.

After the last stillborn child, a dingy washes ashore with the body of a young man and a baby wrapped in a bundle, miraculously still alive. Convincing her husband to delay the inevitable moment, the two fall into a conspiracy of their own making, one that lifts Isabel’s spirit while crushing Tom’s peace of mind.

When he wakes sometimes from dark dreams of broken candles, and compasses without bearings, he pushes the unease down, lets the daylight contradict it. And isolation lulls him with the music of the lie.

Photo by Augusta Margaret River Tourist Association

Inspired by Cape Leeuwin Photo by Augusta Margaret River Tourist Association

At times uncomfortable reading, Stedman keeps you guessing and wanting to turn the pages, as the behaviours of the female characters are as unpredictable as the currents of the ocean herself. Tom, like the lighthouse itself is resolute, yet vulnerable to the consequences of his steadfast loyalty.

The choice of a third person narrative perspective has the effect of keeping the reader at a certain emotional distance and prevented me from being drawn into empathising with the characters, never being truly brought deep into their minds to see things from their perspective, thus we remain at a safe distance ourselves, just like those ships out at sea.

I did wonder why the author hadn’t taken that leap and told the story from the perspective of one of the central characters, but at the same time, sense the hesitation to go there. In all, a magnificent debut and thought-provoking novel, with many fabulous evocations of the turmoil of the sea and humanity.

That Deadman Dance

Bobby Wabalanginy is a young Noongar Aborigine boy who loses his parents and thus spends more time than most among the ‘Horizon people’, those who came to his land on ships from somewhere beyond the horizon. A happy boy, his people believe that family includes the fish, birds and animal-life who communicate messages like the wind and the sky, all of whom they read with ease whilst the newcomers marvel at their abilities, as if it is by chance that they can predict the turning of the flames of a raging fire.

Bobby befriends Mr Cross who is trying to tame a piece of land in order to bring his wife and children to join him. Mr Cross teaches Bobby English and learns some of the protocols of respect between Aborigine people and begins to understand the logic of their ways. After his death, Bobby continues his lessons with Mrs Chaine and her twins, Christine and Christopher.

‘these men from the ocean horizon or wherever it is they come from, they do not leave even when the rains come and that wind blows across the water right into their camp.’

Kim Scott evokes the simplicity of Aboriginal life and their close affinity to nature and the environment, they are part of the natural habitat and leave little trace of their inhabitancy though they are adept trackers and can see things others can’t. The European’s bring a different way of being and a different relationship to the land, its climate and tendencies, they seek to tame it and turn it into something that resembles that which they are familiar with, thus they impose their will and their ways.

“we learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours…”

Killer Whales by Badlydrawnstickman at behance.net

As the settlement grows, more people visit, interactions with itinerant whalers herald the beginning of their semi-dependency on the horizon people, who use their labour and reward them by trading food and goods, this becomes a turning point, because the whaling era comes to an end and the indigenous people are then without resources, they begin to resent that these people take their land as if they own it, use their animal brothers and then punish them for wanting to take a sheep or something else in return.

Tolerance degenerates into mistrust, laws are imposed and the European colonials assert their perceived superiority, enforcing these new rules by making an example of Bobby and others, throwing them in jail. They ensure his silence for anything he may have seen which would imply law breaking by the colonialists.

The old man snorted his contempt for Bobby’s song: those foreign words, that horizon people’s bleached and salty tongue and prickles of strange melodies. There are too many whales ashore, he said and too many people from all around, and do not greet us when they arrive or say goodbye when they leave. We are pressed by strangers from the sea now, and from inland too.”

It is a book that meanders, on plot and when it attempts to delve into a character, which it never really succeeds in doing, though Bobby is the common thread throughout. Some characters are memorable while others churn in a sea of names making the briefest of appearances. The story slows down and drifts aimlessly midway, seeming almost to lose its way, a reflection of what was happening to the population, lost in confusion.

Image courtesy of Nambassa Trust & Peter Terry

While not everyone may have the patience for this literary walk-about, Scott’s book touches something deep within, it is a window into the Aborigine people’s incredible relationship with the natural environment, how song and dance communicate knowledge and wisdom down the generations, something that if we ever knew it, has long been lost in our own western cultures, which have become less rooted in our landscape and surroundings as we seek to infuse each location we inhabit with known familiarity.

“he came alive in the Dead Man Dance and gathered together all the different selves. …It was like Bobby was them, was showing their very selves, inside their heads and singing their very sound and voices:…”

In my own virtual meanderings, I came across Cultural Survival and learned that it was only in 2007 that the United National General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which includes:

the right to live on and use their traditional territories; the right to self-determination; the right to free, prior, and informed consent before any outside project is undertaken on their land; the right to keep their languages, cultural practices, and sacred places; the right to full government services, and, perhaps most significant, the right to be recognized and treated as peoples.

It is sad it has taken this long for the hard work of many for this to become a Human Right, and there is much to do to continue to maintain it. I hope this book, quite apart from being an entertaining read, will help to increase awareness of the rights and cultural heritage of the many indigenous populations worldwide.

I am reminded in closing of the wonderful music of Yothu Yindi, an appropriate complement to the unique voices channelled by Kim Scott in this book ‘That Deadman Dance’ and winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for the South East Asia and Pacific region. Do click through and listen to the powerful and beautiful ‘Tribal Voice’

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.