Only

Memoir about growing up as an only child in post-war Europe

The first I heard of this book was when I went to go see the author speak at the National Library of Australia. As someone from a large family, I have always been a bit curious about the dynamics of a family with only one child, and so I bought a myself a copy and got it signed by the author.

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“Only” by Caroline Baum is a memoir about growing up as an only child with two European parents in England. With Caroline’s successful businessman father an Austrian refugee from the war and her beautiful mother an orphan from tragic circumstances, her elegant yet traumatised parents raise her in an affluent home full of tension and high expectations. As a young adult, the controlled and isolated environment of her childhood becomes stifling and Caroline begins to forge her own life. However, as her relationship with her parents turns increasingly fractious as they age, Caroline finally severs ties with her parents. Resuming contact years later after a tentative olive branch, Caroline soon finds that her relationship with her parents is forever changed.

This is a beautifully written book that weaves together the many themes experienced by  this small but complex family. Baum explores the deep and lasting impact of her parents’ trauma on her family’s unique dynamic, and throughout the book struggles to reconcile with her father’s controlling behaviour against his extreme vulnerability as an older man. Baum is very cognizant of her family’s privilege and her recollections of her extraordinary upbringing are tempered with an awareness that the dinners, schools, clothes and travel were not opportunities available to many people. I also really enjoyed Baum’s recollections of her early days as a journalist, which honestly would have made a great memoir in its own right.

I think the one thing that I felt was missing was a bit more information about Baum’s life in Australia. I think that with any memoir, it’s hard to know what to include and what to exclude. This is a book about being an only child, but I would have liked to have read more about what it is like to be an only child living in another country away from your parents.

A fascinating insight into an elite and insular post-war family, I enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading more of Baum’s work.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

Only: A singular memoir

2 Comments

Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

2 responses to “Only

  1. I missed this talk, but heard a few interviews with Baum about the book and would love to have found time to read it, which I didn’t manage to in the end, and probably won’t now. As one of three children, I’m always fascinated by the experiences of only children or one-of-many children. Both seem exotic to me!

    I take your point about her Australian experience – particularly as an only child who left her parents to move to far away – but as you say, I guess she wanted to keep her focus narrow. I wonder if she’s considering a follow-up? Perhaps not/

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure – Baum seems to keep pretty busy with a number of projects, but I felt like she had a real flair for writing so I’d be keen to see if she does any more memoir or turns her hand to another genre

      Liked by 1 person

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