Book Review: Lion by Saroo Brierley

I saw the movie first and was blown away by this amazing story. I then read the book and it was no less powerful.

This is the story of five-year-old Saroo, who accidentally becomes trapped on a train which travels half way across India. When the train eventually stops, he finds himself in Calcutta lost and alone. He dodges disaster and with luck on his side ends up in an orphanage where he is adopted by a caring Australian family. Growing up in Tasmania, he wonders where he has come from and his nagging memories stir him into action to find out. It takes years of dogged patience and with encouragement from friends he uses technology to methodically trace his footsteps back to his family.

It’s an engrossing story despite the fact I’d seen the movie which by the way, does a remarkable job with the adaptation. The vulnerability you feel for this five-year-old keeps you on edge and it is incredibly brave of the author to reveal it all on the written page. It’s well written enough although with a matter of fact approach. Although we’re not privy to every one of Saroo’s emotions, we nevertheless feel his every agonising step of what was a difficult journey.

When do you tell a white lie?

My father had an operation on his appendix. The doctor and his boss each wrote to my grandparents to tell them and to also let them know that he was well.

He had always been fiercely independent and he played it down in his letter.’I’m very sorry about his appendix business Mum. The doc didn’t tell me anything about sending that cable, and I told you a fib in the letter so as not to worry you.’ I wonder what my grandmother must have thought. He had been away three months on this remote island and already two trips to hospital!

To prove how well he was and I suppose to allay any worries  he later writes,
“I’m thriving on the life up here though and reckon it’s a great place. I’m as fit as a fiddle – developing quite a few long unused muscles owing to the strenuous work and still eating like a horse.” He painted a picture of  his social life – playing tennis, dinner parties and dances.

I knew from his letters there were about 2000 workers on the Island, some with families, but for the most part, the population was male. I started imagining what it must have been like. No doubt there would have been alcohol and I wondered if a young man like him would have indulged. It was a rare day when he didn’t enjoy a beer in his adult life and he was proud to tell us that he never drank to excess.

I wondered if it had started on Ocean Island. I smiled when I read a line in one of his letters.
  ‘And I hope you’re not worrying about the manner of my liquid refreshments – the strongest drink I’ve had, or intend to have is fruit cordial, but put away an average of about four or five coconuts per day.’

I found out later that the European workers each had a daily beer ration. I learnt to read between the lines.

A Mother’s Worry.

Pinnacles on Ocean Island
Pinnacles on Ocean Island

As a man, there are things you can write to your father that you don’t write to your mother.

The next letter  to my grandfather was different and the tone changed.This was a man to man letter. The language was looser, less formal. He described the hardship; hacking at bush; of sweat and dirt; the mining and how it worked; of cableways; crushers, dryers and storage bins and pinnacles of phospate. It was a dry, harsh landscape and it sounded less than tropical island idyllic.

In contrast the next letter to my grandmother talked about his broken watch which he was sending back to her to organize repair. He told her of listening to the amateur hour and about his housemate. He mentioned that he’d cut his leg falling on some steps some weeks prior; that it had become infected and that he had gone to hospital for a few days. He told his mother not to panic, “The leg is quite ok now, so don’t go worrying.”

What a bombshell that must have been. She found out well after the fact.What must she have been thinking. Like most mothers she would have worried. Isn’t it built in as soon as you’ve conceived? If a child tells you not to worry, that’s when you worry. I’m surprised he confessed. But was this because there were bigger issues brewing on the island?

This was a pattern in his behaviour that I recognised. Even when he was sick and in his last days he didn’t want any fuss and tried to hide the reality of his predictament from his family.

I wondered what else he was leaving out.

Turmoil

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It had been a few days before I could get back to the letters. I’d been emotionally drained after thinking about my father. Perhaps it was part of the grieving process –  I don’t know. I decided not to think too much – get it down – read and think later.

The third letter was to my grandfather – interesting. I had thought all the letters were to my grandmother. I had never known my grandfather – he had died several years before my parents had even met.The date was 30 June 1948 and my father had been away for a whole month. He had finally arrived on Ocean Island. There was a hand drawn diagram of his house and a photo of it (displayed above). Could that be him, shirtless? I wasn’t sure. There were no drones so someone must have climbed a tree to take this shot.

The next paragraph made me think this was no idyllic island paradise. He explained that the natives had gone on strike; some natives were speared; and Europeans had armed themselves with guns. I wasn’t expecting this. What had been going on? Then he talked about how hot it was, what his job was like and detailed descriptions of his meals. I re-read the part about the strikes and firearms. He was matter of fact. I tried to read between the lines; was he scared, anxious,homesick, excited? He ended the letter by advising his father to take his mother for a holiday to Brisbane to see his sister – nice touch. I’m sure alarm bells would have been ringing for his parents.

I couldn’t wait to get to the next letter, dated a week later and was frustratingly short – half a page. It mostly explained that he needed to write the letter quickly to catch the boat. There was nothing more about the strike. What was really going on that he hadn’t put into his letters? He ended it by promising to write a really long letter later that night. Lucky for me I could read his next letter in an instant. How excruciating it must have been for my grandparents to wait weeks for the next instalment. That wouldn’t work now in our age of instant gratification.

As I typed the next letter quickly, I wondered if he would update about the strike. There were descriptive passages about the weather, the people he met and his daily routine. He mentioned his boss Mr Allen, who he described as “quite a decent chap”. He joined the Rifle Club and learnt some local phrases from the natives. He seemed to be getting along well. No updates on the strike. Was he keeping that to himself so as not to worry his parents?

Here was the hard part. I wanted the letters and the story to reveal itself to me. But I knew that if I read ahead then my discipline to type it all would wane. I knew myself too well.