“But it appears that Hartnett was persuaded to use a pseudonym
not as a stunt to increase sales, as has been suggested, but
because putting her name on the book might destroy her career.” says Jane Sullivan. With
her reputation as a children’s writer, school librarians might have
mistakenly put her adult novel on their shelves, as has happened in
the past – leading unsuspecting young Hartnett fans to discover
their idol’s steamy side.
Maybe there was another reason. That the book is a roman a clef.
Sonya Hartnett can turn her pen to any market, and any
subject. By Jason Steger.
Sonya Hartnett has spent most of her writing career shying away
from being known as a children’s writer. She was first published
when she was 15 – “I was a novelty act” she snorts dismissively now
– and has always objected to the label because it came invariably
with a tone of derision. And anyway, she says, the books were not
“If they called you a children’s writer in a respectful way it
wouldn’t be so bad but in Australia we don’t do that,” she says in
her usual blunt way.
Hartnett is small in stature but big in opinions and never afraid
of expressing them. Call a spade a spade? Not Sonya Hartnett. She’ll call it a shovel.
Many people were surprised that her latest book, The Silver
Donkey, is a novel for children and states that fact clearly
on the cover. “That was my insistence. I looked at covers of books
from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. One caught my eye like that and I
thought it looked good. In retrospect perhaps it was a mistake
because some people are not going to buy it.”
Of a Boy is a desperately sad
story of nine-year-old Adrian,
emotionally adrift and
wretchedly unhappy in an adult’s
world that offers him virtually no
comfort and little consolation.
He has lost his mother, been
discarded by his father, and is
being brought up by his
grandmother and an emotionally
traumatised uncle, Rory.
It is 1977 and the three
Metford children have
disappeared. Their apparent
abduction – with clear echoes of
the Beaumont case – establishes
a mood that pervades the book
and envelops Adrian in a miasma
of misery. He is betrayed cruelly
by Clinton, whom Adrian
considered his best friend, and
moves through life in a state of
But it is a wonderful book that
deals with the tragic side of the
world in spare, clear prose. Critic
Peter Craven described Hartnett
last year as “one of the finest
writers in this country”. Writing in
The Age shortly after she won the
Guardian award for children’s
fiction for her previous novel,
Thursday’s Child, he said she “has
an effortless sense of drama, with
dialogue of perfect pitch and an
ability to negotiate material that
is calamitous, heartbreaking and
preoccupied with the surface of
the sweep of ordinary life”.