Peter Papathanasiou, a geneticist by profession, has written a quietly reflective memoir about a magnanimous act by his mother's brother's wife.
His tale comprises a poignant variation on the theme, "who do you think you are?"
Papathanasiou's is not a harrowing story about the agonies of childbirth, the dilemmas of surrogacy, the travails of IVF, or the plight of broken families. Here, nobody dies from other than natural causes.
The author is the son of migrants and grandson of refugees; his parents migrated from Greece to Australia in 1956 but were unable to have children, a huge sorrow - and shame - for them among Australia's Greek community and their own family.
The woman whom Papathanasiou knew as his aunt conceived and carried a baby for her childless sister-in-law, who had already suffered three miscarriages.
Between 1974, when he was born, and 1999, when his mother revealed the family secret, Papathanasiou was convinced he was an only child, longed for, loved but perhaps a bit lonely too. By the time he sought out his newly discovered immediate family in Greece - postponed for four years while he completed his studies - Papathanasiou's birth mother had died but his two brothers were living.
Such selfless sacrifice is genuinely touching, especially because Papathanasiou's natural mother had not chance to meet her third son. For his part, an unknowing younger Papathanasiou once declined to talk to his "auntie" on the telephone from Greece. Little One begins not with the birth mother but with the adoptive mother's confession.
Papathanasiou then switches the reader's attention between the baking heat of a Narrabundah summer and a Greek village, Florian, one boasting "icicles as long and as thick as baseball bats". On the basis of photographs alone, Papathanasiou decides that he shares eyes and ears with one of his brothers, mouth and chin with the other. He quickly gave himself an opportunity to test that hypothesis.
Papathanasiou then switches the reader's attention between the baking heat of a Narrabundah summer and a Greek village, Florian, one boasting 'icicles as long and as thick as baseball bats'.
Papathanasiou's narrative bounces back and forth, both in time (as far back as 1923) and place (between Greece and Australia). He describes both his Canberra childhoood, and the impressions of his parents, negotiating the wide, open spaces of Australia after migrating from post-war Greece.
Along the way he exhumes a fair bit of family history, giving that chronicle the warmth of a human touch by passages of dialogue.
The technique also enables a reader to follow the author from that bracing conversation with his mother to greater resolution and closure.
To begin with, "I was no longer the person I thought I'd been my whole life". "Shock and confusion an anger" were the emotions immediately in play.
After that, curiosity, comprehension and compassion had much the upper hand.
As he moves through the family story, Papathanasiou takes time for some gracious stops along the way. One comes when his adoptive mother asks that a telephone receiver be placed on the chest of her dead brother, laid out on the other side of the world, so that she might speak directly to his heart. Another sweet digression concerns his father's backyard shed, "home to poisonous spiders and slippery rats and greasy car parts", as well as to his Dad's skill with his hands. The "organic quality" and "junkyard finish" of his father's works are duly celebrated.
So too is the dignity manifested during his father's final illness. Earlier on, confronted with the removal of much of his stomach, Papathanasiou's father had sagely counselled his son to "look after your mother. If she goes, we're all done for."
Papathanasiiou's first encounter with his brothers is placed about mid-way through the book. One brother "reeked of nicotine and cologne. I smelled of fear".
After that meeting, the book moves with its author to university in California, then to writing class in Greenwich Village, then to marriage and the birth of his three children. Memoirs often raise questions about the balances between individual and family stories, length, or the extent of context and back-stories included. Off and on, that comment holds true of Little Me too, but Papathanasiou can be pleased with his scrupulous, thoughtful story-telling.
- LITTLE ONE by Peter Papathanasiou, is published by Allen and Unwin.
- Mark Thomas is a Canberra reviewer.