Boy, Lost – Kristina Olsson (book review)

In August, I went to the Bendigo Writers Festival and had a wonderful time. I thought I would enjoy it and get a bit from it, but my expectations were exceeded. Twice over.

One of the sessions I attended was titled On Grieving. As someone who has lamented the lack of books available on the topic of grief, this was one of the first sessions I circled in my program. I went along to hear from Susan Wyndham (My Mother, My Father) and Kristina Olsson (Boy, Lost).

Immediately following the session, I purchased both books. Now, some weeks after having finished Boy, Lost, I feel ready to review it. Just. Here are my thoughts.

Boy, Lost / Kristina Olsson

(University of Queensland Press, 2013)


Kristina Olsson’s mother lost her infant son, Peter, when he was snatched from her arms as she boarded a train in the hot summer of 1950. Yvonne was young and frightened, trying to escape a brutal marriage, but despite the violence and cruelty she’d endured, she was not prepared for this final blow, this breathtaking punishment. Yvonne would not see her son again for nearly forty years.

Boy, Lost will rock you. And not the way Queen did.

The subject matter is tough, and some parts of this book could be confronting. But Olsson’s writing and words smooth the way. Her use of language is impressive in its own right, but when it’s tied to such emotional and personal subject matter, it’s even more so.

Olsson weaves between the past and the present, adding shape to past events with her own reflections within the context of her family’s sustained, unspoken grief. This could have been jarring – particularly as the past often moves between Yvonne and Peter as they live their lives separated from each other – but it is not. The book flows naturally.

Boy, Lost is unapologetic in telling events as they happened, but Olsson doesn’t label Peter’s father a monster. (You’ll form your own opinion on that.) She provides some background so that you can begin to understand (but never excuse) the factors contributing to his beliefs and behaviour.

But this memoir isn’t about him. It’s about Yvonne and Peter above all else, and the book’s final pages are a reminder that real life is not a finite story, let alone a fairy tale.

Standout lines:

  • At thirty-four he is literally twice her age, experienced, hardened, hungry. She is a naively beautiful girl from the poor and unformed outer suburbs of Brisbane. She doesn’t stand a chance.
  • We are all born into some quality of air, of mood, of atmosphere. A kind of receiving blanket of emotion: joy, regret, fear, celebration.
  • As she spoke she looked at me with that half-smile of hers, and I was startled for a moment, because it felt like a confession, or a gift, which might be the same thing.
  • Where does the pain of grief and loss live? In the head, in the heart, in the body? Who knows if anguish and illness are linked, or the physical effects of a broken heart?
  • And finally we went home with our father, to the house still so palpably hers, imprinted with her thoughts and conversation, her busy hands.

Boy, Lost is a raw, honest and beautiful book. It took more out of me than I was expecting, and to date I’ve led what some would call a sheltered life. So if you find the topics of domestic violence, child abduction and all-consuming grief confronting, then you may wish to proceed with caution.

But the topics are treated with care and respect. You may wish to proceed with caution, but I highly recommend that you do proceed.

Recommended for anyone who thinks, as I do, that grief needs a louder voice in modern life. Thank you for writing this book, Kristina Olsson, and for your words at the Bendigo Writers Festival. There were of course tears in the room, but also a general feeling of mutual support and care that was incredibly uplifting.

You can purchase Boy, Lost from Booktopia here or from Book Depository here.


Have you read Boy, Lost? What did you think?

* Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you click to purchase the item, I earn a little commission, but you don’t pay any extra.


  1. says

    Oh wow. I read the first paragraph of your review and was just horrified. How awful. After thinking you’d finally escaped, only to have your child snatched from your arms.

    • Emily says

      She starts the book there, then goes back. Powerful beginning. Sickening feeling in your stomach. Incredible read.

  2. says

    I read this book last year, and I absolutely wept through it. My mother was one of that generation of women who were forced to go to a convent and give up their babies as teenage mothers, and a lot of the story reminded me of my mum’s journey to meeting that child again 26 years later. It was beautifully written. The mind boggles that he could have ended up in foster care and no one ever mentioned that he had a mother who desperately wanted to meet him.
    I went to an even at the Non-Fiction Festival here in Geelong a few weeks ago, and also attended a lecture on writing about grief, with 3 panel members who had written memoirs.

    • Emily says

      Wow, thanks for sharing that part of your mum’s story. I can’t imagine it. I could read every book ever written about it, and speak to people who lived it, and still never imagine what it would be like to have your baby taken away.
      And thanks for sharing about the panel, too. Good to hear the universal (yet oh-so-private and unique) experience of grief being discussing publicly.

  3. says

    This book does sound like something I would struggle with. Anything to do with little boys since I had my own two just rips my heart out (not that I find news about little girls any less heartbreaking but you relate to what you know). So sad. Maybe one day I will read this.

  4. says

    Such a well written review Em! I do agree that grief needs to be spoken about more. I am a very emotional person so this book would have me in tears. However, it does sound like a very good read and as you said written with care and respect. I’ll add it to my reading list for sure!

    • Emily says

      Thanks Min. I was certainly in tears more than once. But it was a cleansing read, too. I’m seeking out more of Olsson’s work.

    • Emily says

      I’ve turned to non-fiction a lot more in recent years. And am a fan of historical fiction now too, something I NEVER thought I’d say! Well worth the exception.

    • Emily says

      Correct on both counts. But also important to acknowledge, especially with the domestic violence discussions being had around the country at the moment.

  5. says

    I’ve actually not read any of her work but she’s coming to my hometown soon and I feel I should get familiar with her writing before I go to meet her!

    • Emily says

      Highly, highly recommend this one. If you read it beforehand though, you just may want to cuddle her when you do meet her.

  6. says

    I’m both drawn to it for the raw beauty of the prose in those snippets. But then part of me is repelled because it’s too close to home and the fear of losing a child. Thank you for your wonderful review. Zoe xx

  7. says

    It sounds like a fantastic read. I’m glad you warned us to proceed with caution. At the beginning of your post I was thinking, “Nope. Can’t do it. Too much” but by the end of it, I agreed with you. We need to let difficult issues like domestic violence surface and be spoken about.

    • says

      Thanks Grace. That’s exactly how I feel about it. It’s one of those stories I’ve probably read before in fiction, but seems so much harder to read as memoir. THIS. ACTUALLY. HAPPENED.

  8. Kate says

    Hi Em, i just finished this based on your recommendation, what a tear jerker, and so beautifully written. I was struggling to find a decent read and your review arrived in my inbox at just the right moment. Such a sad, powerful and yet uplifting tale.

    • Emily says

      Thanks Kate. I’m glad you got as much from it as I did. One of those important reads that is heartbreaking, but still beautiful.

  9. says

    I was at the same session in Bendigo and also bought this book after hearing Kristina speak. It was so beautifully written. I was lost in this story for many weeks after finishing it.

    • Emily says

      I was lost in it too! (And you would have heard me ask my question that wasn’t really a question because by the end it was just blubbering…)

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