- Things Nobody Knows But Me, by Amra Pajalic. Transit Lounge. $29.99.
Mental illness is a coat of many colours, most of them bleak beyond imagining, but sometimes punctuated by sudden shafts of bewildering light, like the image of a green oasis in the middle of a desert.
Bipolar disorder is such a beast. This manic form of depression locks the sufferer inside a kaleidoscopic race for primacy between despair and elation, often with unpredictable results.
Amra Pajalic's Muslim parents came from the Bosnian region of Yugoslavia, the Soviet bloc country that splintered - bitterly and often savagely - into separate republics based on fierce religious and ethnic loyalties following the collapse of communism. Pajalic's father died young, leaving her mother, Fatima, in the grip of an unidentified psychological affliction. During Fatima's early years in Yugoslavia any form of mental illness was considered shameful, and likely dismissed as 'nervous breakdown', and when the truth about her bipolar disorder was eventually revealed, much later in Australia, Pajalic's mother was already a seriously damaged woman.
Pajalic discovered her mother's diagnosis at the age of 16 after a talk with a sympathetic high school teacher in the Melbourne suburb of St Albans, described in the memoir as a "Balkan enclave", with neighbours from Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia.
Earlier, at the age of seven, and before the breakup of Yugoslavia, Pajalic and her younger brother, Harris, were taken by Fatima on 'a visit' to Bosnia, where they lived with their grandparents, Dido and Kaida in a "little hamlet of ten houses clustered together". The visit lasted several years (interrupted by a return to Australia) and provided a coming of age experience for the life hungry young Pajalic.
Her thirst for discovery was partly relieved by local folk stories, a few complicit friends and her illiterate Grandmother's love of racy fables, amusingly at odds with a punitive puritanism.
When Fatima, despite ongoing problems, married a staunchly taciturn but good-natured Bosnian and returned to Australia, Amra and Harris chose to remain with their grandparents before also coming home, where Pajalic's relationship with her mother survived the turbulence of ad hoc treatment, until the correct diagnosis opened the way for a more amenable family life, as well as the path towards healing.
This memoir spans a child's viewpoint, which - as the author admits - required "fictional devices to recreate dialogue and setting", but still allows an authentic encounter with the ongoing mystery of an unquiet mind.
- Ian McFarlane is a writer with lifelong experience of clinical depression.