A couple of months ago, I read the historical documentary, Last Woman Hanged, the bloody story of Louisa Collins, mother of ten, hanged at the new Darlinghurst Gaol in 1889. Thoroughly researched and professionally written, I found it a compelling read. When I told relatives about it, they asked if I’d read the novel Ghost Child, by Caroline Overington. When I said no; they sent me a copy to read. Its cover advises:
In 1982, “…Victorian police were called to a home (and) found a five-year-old boy lying still and silent on the carpet… the boy died the following day.” The boy’s mother and her boyfriend went to prison for his death, but rumours about a cover-up continued to sweep the housing estate where it occurred. The rumours suggested the real perpetrator was the boy’s six-year-old sister, Lauren. The dead boy was Jacob, with other siblings a younger brother, Harley, and an infant sister, Hayley.
The story takes us through a twenty-year period and is told in the words of the people involved. The first of these is the now adult Lauren, living and working in Sydney. Through circumstances, Harley finds his sister after many years’ separation. From this point, we are taken back and forth through the family’s life journeys.
We meet Detective Senior Sergeant Brian Muggeridge, a likable family man who’s a concerned and caring cop; the Reverend John Ball, weak and ineffectual; Frank Postle, an old-fashioned type, a reporter who cares for the people behind a story; Elizabeth Costa, a social worker who believes the system works as it should; Karen McInerny, a foster carer, strict and straight but not unkind, up to a point; Ruby Porter, another carer, both huge and hugely likable, an ‘everyone’s mum.’
The story develops through the eyes and the words of these people, and others, much of the direction coming from the children themselves. Potential exists for a story told in this way to become disjointed, but Overington maintains a logical progression; the developmental theme is maintained throughout and holds the reader’s interest.
Ghost Child is a sad story, thought provoking. The theme is dark in many ways and raises a lot of questions as it goes, some of which are answered. Beyond that, it provides a springboard to reading further about child abuse, family breakdown, fostering, child protection, and other welfare situations.
Read this with an open mind. I found it of special interest because of parallels to a family situation in the 1950s: A father committing suicide, a mother (a maternal aunt) dying in childbirth, the separation of family with all five children, including the newborn baby and twin three-year-old girls, sent to five different foster families. All of the children live to this day, but the psychological problems they suffer can be sheeted home to the circumstance of their separation.