July 20, 2019 | Australian, The/Weekend Australian/Australian Magazine, The (Australia)
Author: Phillip Siggins | Page: 21 | Section: Review
995 Words | Readability: Lexile: 1150, grade level(s): 9 10 11-12
Things Nobody Knows But Me By Amra Pajalic Transit Lounge, 272pp, $29.99
Love, Luck and the Demon By John F. Roe Wakefield Press, 314pp, $34.95
Amra Pajalic’s memoir Things Nobody Knows But Me is a window on growing up in two cultures, an experience shared by many Australians. In this instance growth is shadowed by mental illness and domestic violence. It is told in a distinctive voice, sharp, direct, sometimes bruising.
Pajalic, with frankness and honesty, tells of living under the care of her widowed, manic-depressive mother, Fatima. Our first major encounter with Fatima is during a full-blown bipolar episode:
"Mum suddenly stopped and cocked her head as if she was listening to someone. She dropped the sheet in her hands and approached the tall shelves my father had built to store his tools, which ran up the wall of the house and reached the roof … ‘‘Yes, Allah, I know you are looking after me and I will prove it to everyone,’’ Mum said to God. She closed her eyes as she took her first step, climbing the shelf as if it was a ladder."
In St Albans, on the western edge of Melbourne, Fatima climbs to paradise with crazed self-confidence while the child looks on, terrified, but also curious to see if Allah will reveal himself.
Her mother’s hospitalisations force Pajalic and her brother Haris into temporary shelter such as the houses of family friends and foster homes, but in the main they are able to return to Fatima, who struggles to care for them as best she can. The children are resilient, finding in their innocence, amid the chaos, opportunities for growth and even happiness.
Pajalic’s childhood is spent in St Albans. But when one of Fatima’s boyfriends stalks them, the family flees to Fatima’s homeland, Bosnia. In Bosanska Gradiska, Pajalicand Haris live under the rule of their villager grandparents.
In due course Pajalic refuses to return to Australia with Fatima and Fatima’s new husband because here she finds relative stability. She also discovers friendships, her emerging sexuality, and the violence, illiteracy and fury of life in this almost medieval Bosnian village.
Everyone knows everyone’s business and behind-doors violent punishment is dispensed for crimes real and imagined. The grandmother bears the scars of a brutal beating. Violence breeds further violence and Pajalic witnesses the same grandmother smothering Pajalic’s cousin, Sanela:
"She covered Sanela’s mouth and nose with her hand and squeezed her cheeks tightly. My grandmother held her hand there for what seemed like forever … I sat silently on the couch, too scared to look directly at my grandmother lest she turn her rage on me. But she didn’t. My brother and I were the prized grandchildren … while my cousins were Vlahs, a derogatory term for Christian."
Inevitably Pajalic too receives cruel, mindless punishment and this spurs her return to Australia.
The clash of faiths within the family reflects national events: the Bosnian war hasn’t begun but the violence and oppression of village life, only partially understood by the youthful Pajalic, anticipates its horrors.
Part of the strength of this narrative is the dual focus. We see the experience from both the growing child’s perspective and from the mature Pajalic’s point of view. While the child lives in the moment, the mature voice oversees and records, is matter-of-fact, non-judgmental, sometimes amused. Even the brutal grandmother is accepted once Pajalic and the reader understand the circumstances of her forced marriage and the culture within which it took place.
Returning to Australia, Pajalic experiences the clash of cultural identities. She discovers the name of her mother’s illness and learns about Fatima’s first migration to Australia, aged 15, and starts to understand. Fatima emerges as flawed, abused but a survivor, one who is ultimately cherished and loved.
Things Nobody Knows But Me is powerfully engaging. The reader is kept in tension, fearful for the child Pajalic and her teenage self, for Fatima and Haris. And Pajalic is masterful in using the contrasting landscapes of St Albans and Bosanska Gradiska to full dramatic and ironic effect.