Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting, Sonya Hartnett

‘Of A Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 204 pages; 2009.

It didn’t take long for me to discover my first five-star novel for 2010, but with Sonya Hartnett‘s beautiful melancholy Of A Boy I struck unexpected gold. I cannot begin to describe how incredibly affecting I found this short novel to be. There’s something about the slow pacing of this story that gets under the skin and leaves you thinking about it days afterwards. Indeed, it’s been two weeks since I finished Of A Boy and I’m still wondering about nine-year-old Adrian and all that happened to him.

The book is set in 1977 and tells the story of Adrian McPhee, who’s been abandoned by his parents and is now living with his grandmother and his drop-out uncle, Rory, in an undefined suburb in Australia. He is a shy, timid boy, frightened of almost everything, including “quicksand, tidal waves, fire, monsters, cupboards, being forgotten and going astray”. The all-pervasive fear is not helped by the recent disappearance of three young children from a nearby neighbourhood (highly reminiscent of the real-life Beaumont case), which fills the news pages and has teachers and parents on edge.

When a strange new family moves in across the road, Adrian can’t help wondering if the three children — Nicole, Joely and Giles — are the three children who went out for ice-cream and never came home. When he befriends them his small, closeted and lonely world begins to open up…

The real strength of this story, which is written in plain, languid prose, is Hartnett’s uncanny ability to get inside the head of a lonely school boy. She underplays everything, so it is you the reader who comes to understand the pain of his existence. I found the following passage, towards the end of the book, particularly heart-breaking:

He wasn’t a gregarious boy, he couldn’t push his way into any existing group of friends; he felt that, having nothing to offer, they would recognise him as a parasite and treat him with contempt. The reason he felt he had nothing to offer was that, in his heart, he knew he was dull. Nothing about him gave him value: he was ordinary and dull. But at least he was smart enough to know it: he wouldn’t become one of those wretches who lurk the perimeters, who live the hideous role of whipping-boy, lackey, buffoon. He exiled himself ruthlessly, which at least was dignified. He could not be injured if he shielded himself from harm.
But school is a terrible place for a rejected child. The ringing of the lunchtime bell was enough to cool his blood; the lunch hour seemed an endless desert of time. He didn’t complain or resist going to school but every day he haunted the gates, hoping against hope that his mother would walk by, discover him, and carry him home.

He is a beautifully drawn character, as is his grandmother, the headstrong Beattie, who doesn’t really want him but feels obliged to take over where her own daughter left off. She moans that he rules her days, that she hasn’t the energy to look after him. “My mothering days are done,” she claims.

“I can’t go anywhere. I can’t forget myself – I’ve got to be here every three-thirty, collecting him from school. I get a holiday only when he does. I’ve got to cook a decent meal for him every night, so he doesn’t waste away. He needs cleaning, clothing, carting here and there. It’s hard work, rearing a child. It’s not work for the old.”

Similarly, Uncle Rory is a brilliantly realistic character: a 25-year-old man living with the guilt of a horrendous car accident that left his best mate a vegetable. When most everyone else has written off Rory, it’s clear that he has a lot to offer his young nephew. The scenes between the two of them are very touching.

I hesitate to draw comparisons with other novels, because this one is unique, but it did remind me very much of Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea, particularly in its depiction of childhood, albeit it in different parts of the country in different eras. But there’s something about the melancholy of the stories that are achingly familiar.

Not surprisingly, Of A Boy has garnered awards and nominations aplenty. It 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 longlisted for the 2003 Orange Prize for Fiction.

For British and American readers looking to secure a copy of Hartnett’s novel, please be advised that it has been published under a completely different name: What the Birds See.

29 thoughts on “‘Of A Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett”

  1. This sounds fantastic, and will definitely be going on the wishlist. I’m curious about the different UK/US title though – do you think it an appropriate one Kim? From your blogpost, ‘Of a Boy’ sounds perfect.


  2. Which Hartnett book did you read, Gavin? I believe she’s mainly a YA author. She does have a new book out, though, “Butterfly”, which I must look into a bit more to see whether I’d like to read it.


  3. Kirsty, it’s brilliant, but really sad, too. I’m not sure why they changed the UK title (perhaps so it wouldn’t be confused with Nick Hornby’s “About A Boy”?) because “What the Birds See” doesn’t really sum it up as well as the original title.


  4. Oh this sounds very, very good and I know you dont give 5 stars lightly! I will have to look out for it in its UK title at the library when I next go. I wonder why they do that with titles across the varying ponds?
    I also love the orange simplistic covers that penguin do, just delightful.


  5. I bought a few of these orange covers when I was in Oz, because they were so much cheaper than “normal” novels. So, instead of £24.95 per book they were priced at just $9.95. With hindsight I should have nabbed quite a few more, because there were some real gems in there, including Randolph Stow’s Merry-go-round in the Sea!


  6. I’d never heard of it either, Jackie, until I saw it in the Penguin display. In fact, reading the blurb didn’t truly convince me because it just sounded like another run-of-the-mill coming of age story. But I read the first few pages (in the shop) and immediately liked the tone and thought I’d give it a shot. It wasn’t until I did some online research that I’d discovered it had made the shortlist or won all those prizes. I can see why. It’s a brilliant book.


  7. Yes I gave this book to my daughter when she was of a similar age to you Sahel, and she was very moved by it also. She is now twenty and it still sits on her shelf and Kim’s review has made me think about picking it up again myself.


  8. Like yourself Kim, I’ve found Adrian has stayed with me. I cried buckets at the ending, which quite winded me.
    I’ve read Butterfly, which is another excellent though bleak novel, focusing on a fourteen year old girl called Plum.


  9. I read this a year or so ago and agree on its excellence and the utter distress and horror conjured by the last pages. Thursday’s Child, Surrender, Butterfly, The Ghost’s Child, The Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf, The Silver Donkey – many of these are mood pieces but they are some of the best writing for YA that I have come across.
    The one I want to read is Sleeping Dogs, which won prizes in Australia.


  10. I must admit I’m tempted to read more of her stuff, even the YA books for which she’s best known, on the strength of Of A Boy. Thanks for your comment, Col.


  11. I’m so grateful to you for this post. I don’t read full reviews before I read novels so I just noted the title and your rating and skipped to the bottom. I acquired a copy of What the Birds See, knowing nothing about the author, and might never have known you were talking about the same story. I’m so thrilled. I’ll come back and read the whole review when I’ve read it. I’m really looking forward to it now.


  12. I keep hearing good things about Hartnett. Jenny, my coblogger, read both Surrender and Thursday’s Child in the past year and loved them both. This one was already on my list, but it’s nice to get confirmation that’s it worth keeping on the list.


  13. This is one of those books that stays with you… I’m still thinking about it almost a month down the track… I want to read more by her, so it’s nice to hear good things about Surrender (her only other adult novel, I think) and Thursday’s Child.


  14. The orange and white penguins are quite lovely… a real throw-back to the originals.
    You *must* read this book. It is so heart-wrenching and so beautifully written. I’m surprised I haven’t heard more bloggers singing its charms.


  15. I am 16 and have read the book twice in the past three months, which I usually find pretty hard to do. It has so much depth, and the way Sonya Hartnett describes every detail in the novel is so.. i’m not really sure how to desribe it but it’s exceptionally brilliant. The ending disturbed me somewhat, which again is quite rare for me in a book, good, but rare. 10/10


  16. Had to come back and tell you I loved the book of course and can’t wait to read more by Hartnett. Butterfly is not here yet, her books can be hard to find in Canada. Mind you, I’m checking libraries for the moment but may have to break down and buy them myself eventually. So glad I found this author- and another book blogger who appreciates her work too. I’ll watch for any others you might read and your thoughts on them.
    I put a link to your review of Silk in my last post, which I also enjoyed very much. 🙂


  17. Brilliant! Thanks for the update. So glad you enjoyed it. Surprised Butterfly is not available in Canada yet, because I would have thought it had been published under Commonwealth rights and hence be available in Oz, NZ, UK and Canada.
    Thanks for the link to Silk. I’d forgotten about that book — seems like so long since I read it.


  18. im half way through and LOVE it!!!! Its THE best book that iv eva read. Once i finish i plan on reading some of her other books. I applaud her for her amazing writing techniques she uses consistently.
    I wonder if Veronica, Joely and Giles are the lost children. I guess ill just have to keep reading. I simply just cant put the book down!!!
    Luv it!!! 🙂


  19. Can someone explain to me what EXACTLY happens in the end? My guess is that Adrian and Nicole are unable to save themselves and the Grandma and Nicole’s Dad believe they are dead. Sorry if that’s not right : /


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