Lilley, Rozanna. Do Oysters Get Bored? A Curious Life. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing. RRP: $29.99, 228 pp, ISBN 9781742589633
In ‘First Snow’, the opening essay of her memoir, Rozanna Lilley admits feeling uneasy in a hotel lobby where ‘[t]here’s no escaping looking or being looked at’ (3). This might serve as a simple summary of the anxieties driving this book. Looking, seeing, making sense of all you encounter, are central as Lilley explores the complexities of a life made more curious than many by her dual identities as mother to Oscar, a son with autistic disorder, and daughter permanently caught in the ‘starry orbit’ (157) of her late and famous parents, writers Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley.
Just what does life look like when those closest to you see the world through a particular and very personal lens? The hybrid structure of the book attempts an answer through a series of essays and selection of poems, highlighting the distinctive musculatures of prose and poetry, even when exploring the same moment or memories. There is a telling scene where Lilley and her son watch a TV game show, and Oscar is angered by his mother’s concern for a flailing contestant. ‘I want you to be brave and strong and emotionless’ (21) he commands. Lilley seems to be attempting this in the essays, whose tone remains restrained and understated, even as she is working through her family’s ‘oddities and disparities…thinking them over…wonder[ing] what they really quite rhyme to’ (15). It is the later poems which pulse with the emotion readers might expect, but find only vaguely alluded to in the prose.
Lilley’s work reveals both the potential and pain in the way an individual negotiates the world. In his constant stream of questions, we sense Oscar’s determination to ‘get to the very heart of things,’ (20) and his mother’s attempt to work through this process with him takes us to the core of their relationship. Confronted by a world intent on labelling her son atypical, Lilley draws attention to points of similarity rather than difference, finding between herself and Oscar common anxieties, ‘a shared disposition towards the world…I prefer my universe predictable’ (8). The resulting mesh of frustration, fear, admiration, and overwhelming love, gives a sense of how family might be ‘solidity, in joy as in sorrow’ (74). Structurally, moments of the most personal and painful revelation are always followed and counterbalanced by close observation or analysis of Oscar. His blunt but warm honesty, and her love for him, ground Lilley in a present which is less threatening than troubling memories of her own childhood and family dynamic.
And there is, of course, some truly disturbing material in that past. Much has been made of the revelations of sexual assault within this text. Rightly so. The young Rozanna’s repeated exploitation at the hands of men masquerading as family friends is truly shocking. Anything but typical, the Hewett/Lilley home she remembers, where ‘chaos and the Ben Ean Moselle flowed’ and gaping holes in the floorboards keep visitors and residents alike in constant fear of falling ‘through the ever-widening gaps’ (75). It was, she remembers, a time, a lifestyle, ‘simultaneously exciting and awful’ (79). In that household, Lilley senses her parents competing to see who might be the more outrageous. And focused on this task, or on their relationship with each other, priding themselves on living an alternate and supposedly superior lifestyle, there seems little time or inclination for building the structures and security the young Lilley (like her son Oscar) clearly needed and wanted. Adolescence is always befuddling, and—neurotypical or otherwise—it’s a phase we all struggle to negotiate. The contrast between the level of care Lilley offers her child and that she received herself is startling. No explicit authorial comment is required. And next to none is offered.
In her seminal text on the ethics of familial memoir, Nancy K. Miller speaks of how, ‘[h]aunted by our pasts, we are forged in relations of likeness and difference…Writing about oneself entails dealing with the ghostly face in the mirror that is and isn’t one’s own’ (x). Through many of these essays we sense Lilley searching for (and apparently failing to find) echoes of Dorothy in herself, yet they seem to surface subtly, but persistently, in her discussion of Oscar. Hewett’s ever-present notebook or typewriter, her fiercely inward focus and dramatic temperament ghosts many scenes where Oscar relies on his family to not just allow, but enable, his creation of an alternate universe he finds easier to inhabit. These stories and scenarios ease his fraught connection with the external world, and allow him to exercise some control over a life that must often feel uncontrollable. As both father and mother assume the roles Oscar has assigned them, we are mindful of the masks which may be forced upon us by family obligation, acting out a story which makes sense only to its author. ‘We all trade in words and stories,’ (22) Lilley reminds, but we see her struggling—through these essays, and more so in her poems—to understand how to find for herself a space which reconciles real life with the intricate and obsessive fiction-making of both her parents and her child. A space where she can connect and build a relationship with someone who seems to be always (metaphorically) just beyond arm’s reach.
There’s a memorable moment where Oscar, confused by the concept of Australia Day, asserts ‘There’s no need to be Australian. You can just be yourself’ (27). He later asks ‘[d]o you want to try that, Mum?…Do you want to try just being yourself?’ (33). In Do Oysters Get Bored? Rozanna Lilley has accepted the challenge set by her son, showing how the ‘mother’s milk’ of stories and words, poetry and prose, might play an integral role in that process.
Miller, Nancy K. Bequest & Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Marie O’Rourke is a creative writer and PhD candidate from Curtin University, exploring the quirks of memory and experimental essaying to push the boundaries of post-postmodern memoir. Marie’s creative and critical work has been published in Mediating Memory: Tracing the Limits of Memoir (Routledge, 2017), Meniscus, TEXT Journal, New Writing, a/b Auto/biography Studies, Westerly and Australian Book Review.
Interested in Do Oysters Get Bored? A curious life? Also on ‘The Editor’s Desk’, an interview with Rozanna Lilley.