Books and reading,  History

A heartfelt search for the truth: ‘The Other Side of Absence’ by Betty O’Neill

The Other Side of Absence is Betty O’Neill’s debut memoir. The author information tells us that she is a writer and teacher in areas such as writing family history, the Cold War, migration and the domestic space as an archive. This wonderful book includes all of these themes, and more.

She begins by explaining her unusual family situation. Her mother Nora, a young Australian woman on working holiday in England in 1952, met and fell in love with Antoni (Tony), a Polish political refugee. Tony had joined the remnant Polish army under British command in Italy at the end of the war, but later moved to England where he worked for a time at the Bata Shoe Company. (That company name rang bells for me; Bata school shoes were de rigueur for Aussie kids in the 1960’s and 70’s but I didn’t know it was a British company.)

Tony was older, well dressed and charming. After a brief courtship they married and soon Nora was pregnant with Betty. Nora’s mother sponsored Tony to emigrate to Australia and in 1954 Nora and Betty moved to Lismore, NSW, to live with her. Tony arrived eight months later. Within days, he had disappeared: gone from their lives with no word of explanation. Betty did not meet her father until she was nineteen – a troubling connection with a damaged and troubling man – and soon after that he returned to Poland. She never saw him again.

It is with this family background that Betty navigated life as a young adult, but not until later did she begin the search for her father’s story. Who was he? What did he experience as a member of the Polish resistance during the war, and then as a political prisoner at three Nazi concentration camps? What damage was inflicted on him during this time? Why did he marry her mother but then desert his wife and infant child? What motivated him to make contact with Betty when she was nineteen? What about her Polish family – who were they and what stories did they have to tell about their lives and about Tony?

These questions took her to Poland and Austria to retrace her father’s history, his movements and experiences during the war, his life once he returned to Poland from Australia. There were many surprises and troubling revelations in store for Betty as she dug deeper into the past. In the process Betty faced the impact of her father’s experiences on her own life:

I attempted not to judge anyone, particularly not my father, but my knuckles were white holding onto the see-saw of emotions, trying not to fall off…
I knew that crush of feeling unwanted. I had felt it when each of my parents left me..It never leaves when it is imprinted onto a tiny heart. A shaft of darkness was embedded from deep within me to just under the skin. It painfully broke through from time to time. I could easily recognise it in others.

The Other Side of Absence p183-184

The author’s research and personal visits to significant wartime sites, add depth and authenticity to this story of discovery and growing understanding. She describes the feeling when she saw her father’s prisoner card from Auschwitz concentration camp – in a small way I have experienced a similar thrill at finding my ancestors’ names on convict muster lists from the nineteenth century, although of course the emotional punch was much less in my case. She also reflects on the way trauma plays out from one generation to the next. Her conclusions are beautifully nuanced:

Not knowing and wondering had been replaced by understanding and acceptance in ways I could never have predicted. The past no longer haunted my present. I’d come to an appreciation of human complexity: not good or bad but layered by circumstance and context.

The Other Side of Absence p288-289

This memoir, like others I have read (such as Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning, or Esther Safran Foer’s I want you to know we’re still here), illuminate the present by examining the past.
The Other Side of Absence is a beautifully written, engrossing and heartfelt addition to Australian memoir.

The Other Side of Absence is published by Impact Press in August 2020.
My sincere thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

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