Saturday 28 December 2019

The Thing About Oliver

The Thing About Oliver by Deborah Kelly (Wombat Books) PB RRP $14.99         ISBN: 9781925563818

Reviewed by Claire Stuckey

Tilly and her Mum live in a country town where they both work hard to support Oliver. Oliver has autism and needs lots of special care. For a twelve-year-old girl the pressure seems immense as we share one of Oliver's many episodes in the opening chapter. Tilly has her own special interests; she immerses herself in the study, and care of marine life. Her room is locked although not soundproof. She seeks refuge when she can with her aquarium fish.  

After detailing their regular routine all based on Oliver's care, Tilly narrates the story in a very matter of fact way. We soon realise her childhood, schooling and future, have already been adversely impacted by the lack of outside support. Even the regular therapy sessions require long drives so there is no free or social time for this young girl.

 Tilly is shocked when her mum announces that she has lost her job and they need to move once more however this time to the coast in Queensland where they can be near the water to live with Tilly's aunt Janine. Faced with so much disruption, both Tilly and her mum are on high alert to monitor Oliver's reactions.  Although she must leave her beloved fish and aquarium behind, Tilly is excited about being so close to the water and finally learning to swim. Aunt Janine works hard to help and provides much needed support to both mother and daughter.  Tilly finally breaks when Oliver destroys her precious aqua diary. Despite her ongoing dedication to Oliver's wellbeing, Tilly explodes, a reasonable reaction to years of tension. Faced with Oliver's disappearance, it is Tilly who convinces the police to change their search methods to find the lost runaway child who is unable to speak.

The thing about Oliver is a no-holds-barred story about the real situation families face when they have a special needs child. Oliver's episodes, their triggers, impact and calming techniques are documented with clarity.  In this story mother and daughter have developed the strong and structured routine to support Oliver every day, and night. With the financial, personal and emotional stress they face, the move required to survive means even more impact on their already delicate relationship with each other and Oliver.

I read this book in one sitting. It is a valuable, well-written Australian story that shares how autism can and does affect families of all types. It highlights the additional needs of families that struggle financially and those living in rural areas away from support services. Told from a child's perspective, the story resonates emotionally providing much needed insight into life with a special -needs sibling. 

Although this book pulls no punches, it is a story that resonates with strength and love. It has positive outcomes. With Aunt Janine's support and love, Tilly achieves her own goals of learning to swim and a future by the water.  Her mum finds a job, providing a financially secure future and Oliver finds new support in regular therapy sessions in and out of the water. Recommended age is 9 to 12 years.

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