‘The Boy in the Green Suit’ by Robert Hillman

2003, 232 p.

My bookgroup ladies (aka “the ladies who say oooh”) were not unanimous in their opinions of this book.  I liked it though.

For me, a memoir is not the same as an autobiography.  There is not the same imperative to cover all the major bases; it does not have to start at the beginning and end at the end.  A memoir, for me, is more a construction, given its own shape by the author, and truth or completeness are not the major criteria by which it is to be judged.

This memoir was not complete, and some of the bookgroup ladies felt that it was not true either.  It focussed on one year in the author’s life when as a naive and rather pathetic sixteen-year old he left behind his apprenticeship in the butcher’s shop in Eildon and job in the shoe department of Myer Melbourne to embark a Greek ship for Ceylon.  He wore a green suit already too short in the leg that made him look, by his own admission, like a grasshopper, and he carried a suitcase of books and his typewriter.  With no money and no passport, he travelled through Athens, Istanbul, Tehran and Kuwait, ending up in a Pakistani jail.

There are aspects that stretch credulity.  His misadventures are told at a distance, complete with reported conversations which, of course, must be a construction after the event.  The CAE booknotes we used when discussing it quoted Hillman insisting that he remembered conversations word-for-word.  The ladies-who-say-ooh lifted a sceptical eyebrow. This didn’t particularly trouble me.   I found myself more stunned by the naivete  and youth of the lad, and that he survived relatively unscathed. For me, the charmed status he enjoyed in the jail compared with his fellow-prisoners added to the credibility of the book- if the author was inclined to exaggerate or embroider, this Bangkok-Hilton scenario was the place to do it.  But he didn’t.

His narrative is interspersed with events from his emotional life that both explain, and follow through on his travel experience.  His mother walked out on the family when he was very young;  he was uncomfortable with his step-mother and she with him; his father contemplated having his adopted out until dissuaded by Hillman’s older sister; his mother reappeared in his life; he himself had a succession of failed relationships.  These snippets are short, barely two pages and marked with a different font. They raise more questions than they answer.  His relationship with his father is wistful and inadequate, and he seems set to repeat the same pattern.

I thought that this memoir was beautifully constructed, with self-deprecating humour and an ongoing flinch of pain.  It won the National Biography Award in 2005, and I think it was well-deserved.

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