The oceans between us by Gill Thompson
Headline Publishing, 2019. ISBN: 9781472257956.
(Age: 16+) Highly recommended. It was 1941. Jack has happy memories of his mother holding him, as a 5 year old, in her arms, singing and dancing with him, then hiding with him under the table at the sound of sirens and German bombers flying over London. But one day whilst he is at school, there is an explosion, and his whole world is changed forever. His mother disappears, and Jack ends up in the dormitories of Melchet House run by the Catholic nuns, a life of chores and punishments.
Unbeknown to Jack, his mother survived the explosion but was left with amnesia. She passes her time in a hospital ward desperately looking for something she is missing, but she doesn't know what it is.
Life becomes worse for Jack as he becomes one of the thousands of children shipped to Australia to a promised land of sunshine and oranges. However, far from being a paradise, Bindoon, the Boys Town, is a place of hard labour, beatings and abuse. Jack eventually has an escape, taken to be adopted by Kathleen and John, an Australian couple unable to have children. But he can't forget the suffering of the other boys and when his friend Sam dies there, Jack is determined to one day seek justice.
Thompson's novel brings together many themes: the suffering and abuse of child migrants brought to Australia and placed in harsh institutions; Aboriginal children taken from their parents to live a life of servitude; the racism in Britain towards the Jamaican immigrants who came on the Windshuttle; the threat of the childhood disease of polio; and the crude treatment of mental health patients. The novel paints an authentic picture of the times, and would be of interest to students studying the history of the period. It concludes with the apologies of both the British and Australian prime ministers to the children shipped to Australia as child migrants, told they were orphans and brought to Australia without their parents' knowledge or consent.
This book would make an interesting comparison with Jae-Dee Collier's Jae-Dee survives the home of many mothers (2019), a fictionalised account drawn from the author's memories of her life as one of the forgotten children in Australian orphanages, more of a memoir than a novel. Thompson's story builds a wider context to the experience of the institutionalised child, yet both share the loneliness and fear the children suffered, and their longing for kindness and love. Both stories reveal the long-standing aftereffects of abuse.
That is not to say that The oceans between us is difficult to read. On the contrary, we are drawn into the lives of the characters; there is romance, and there are happy as well as sad moments. I thoroughly recommend it - it keeps the reader engaged until the very last page.