Title: The Other Side of Absence
Author: Betty O’Neill
Published: August 5th 2020
Publisher: Ventura Press
Genres: Non-Fiction, Historical, Memoir
Rating: 4 stars
Betty O’Neill grew up knowing very little about her father, Antoni. She knew that he had fled Poland after World War Two, that he had disappeared overnight when she was just an infant, and that his brief reappearance when she was a young adult had been a harrowing, painful ordeal.
Fifty-five years after he deserted her family, Betty is determined to find out more. What drove him to abandon them, twice? What was his story? Who was Antoni Jagielski?
Her search for truth takes Betty to Poland, where she unexpectedly inherits a family apartment from the half sister she never knew – a time capsule of her father’s life. Sifting through photos and letters she begins to piece together a picture of her father as a Polish resistance fighter, a survivor of Auschwitz and Gusen concentration camps, an exile in post-war England, and a migrant to Australia. But the deeper she searches, the darker the revelations about her father become, as Betty is faced with disturbing truths buried within her family.
Honest, compelling, and meticulously researched, The Other Side of Absence is an elegant debut memoir of resilience and strength, and of a daughter reconciling the damage that families inherit from war.
‘I’d come to some understanding of the decisions my father had made and how his history had shaped him and in turn had shaped me.’
The Other Side of Absence by Betty O’Neill is a raw and affecting memoir piece. A touching, honest and surprising life story unravels, as author Betty O’Neill embarks upon a moving journey into learning why her father was largely absent from her life. This rich family biography evokes plenty of emotion and deep reflection.
A meeting with her father at nineteen years old after her had been absent from her childhood encouraged Betty O’Neill to investigate her father’s life. With scant information to go on in regards to her father’s movements, Betty O’Neill uses her memoir as a platform to look closely at the reasons why her father abandoned her and what he endured in life following his wartime experiences in Poland. In penning her book, O’Neill visited European destinations such as Poland and Austria, which resulted in the shock discovery of an inherited flat and a half sister. Betty then had to wade her way through the plethora of information available to her about her father. With the help of a translator, first hand accounts, documents, photographs, letters and more, Betty begins to form a picture of the man who was not only her father, but a concentration camp survivor and a resistance fighter. We learn that after Betty’s father escaped from Europe, he settled in Australia, but this was a dark and tumultuous time for this clearly disturbed man. The Other Side of Absence is a conflicting tribute to an absent father and a broken man, told from the eyes of those left scarred by his life story.
The Other Side of Absence is the debut memoir from Sydney based teacher and writer Betty O’Neill. This compelling family history investigation is told over three parts and twenty-two chapters. With an accompanying Acknowledgments, Bibliography and Author section, O’Neill’s revealing look into her father’s secrets is a poignant read. Supporting the text areas are photographs, transcripts, letters, maps, summary notes, historical records, website search results, advertisements, emails, eye witness accounts, cemetery plaques, prisoner card images, memorandums, personal testimonies, medical reports and keynote speeches. I’m sure you will agree that this is an extensive list of sources which the author has utilised to form the basis of her memoir. The Other Side of Absence is an authentic and comprehensive composition, penned by a thoughtful writer.
As a keen-eyed reader of World War II fiction and non-fiction, the opportunity to discover more about this unforgettable period in our history books is always welcomed on my behalf. Although I find books dealing with the Second World War and the Holocaust harrowing, I think it is imperative that we continue to read these testimonies to the past. In circulating first hand accounts such as Betty O’Neill’s father’s story, we are working towards building a future where peace can prevail, past mistakes cannot be replicated and the lost souls of this awful time in history can never be forgotten. The Other side of Absence is text that is able to successfully communicate the trauma of war that follows not only those who lived the experience, but those who were left behind and the generations that have come after. Passed down from one generation to the next, whole families have been consumed by the wounds of war trauma. Although The Other Side of Absence is about Antoni Jagielski’s story, it is just as much his daughter Betty O’Neill’s self-examination into her own life and psychology. I felt every moment with Betty as she worked understand why her father was absent from her life for so long. In a brave and bold move, Betty’s determination in exposing the truth in regards to her father’s life path contributed to a lengthy first-hand investigation into Antoni’s significant movements during the war and after the war. With plenty of shocks, surprises, challenges, misunderstandings, high emotion and moments of semblance defining Betty’s family history expedition, the reader will be left changed by this search into the past.
A crucial and extensive family history memoir, Betty O’Neill’s The Other Side of Absence is a sincere text that reminds us of the strength of the human spirit to withstand great challenges. A reminder of the carnage of the war to the victims, their loved ones and future generations, Betty O’Neill’s memoir is a must read.
The Other Side of Absence by Betty O’Neill was published on 5th August 2020 by Ventura Press. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Other Side of Absence, Betty O’Neill, visit here.
*Thanks extended to Ventura Press and the author for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.
The Other Side of Absence is book #138 of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge