The Absent Prince by Una Suseli O’Connell – a family memoir of missing men

The Absent Prince by Una Suseli O’Connell

A family memoir is often deeply revealing of characters who may or may not have affected the person writing the book, and in this well written book the effect on Una is strong as it mainly features her parents, the somewhat elusive Peter O’Connell and the difficult Lea Kummer. The book sets out to look at the effects of parents on the psychological situations of the child that in turn affects their relationships and perhaps most crucially their self-image.  Being the daughter of a nearly compulsive teacher obviously affected her view of her educational achievements, but did her paternal grandfather’s emotional reaction to serving in war affect Peter’s view of life, or his desire to travel and find new opportunities. Lea suffered from a painful and difficult illness, but also a relationship with a man who abandoned her to marry the boss’ daughter which certainly had an effect on her views on marriage.

 As Una combs through her parents’ letters, sent and received, and their diaries which she admits to having considered destroying, she discovers family secrets that have much to say about not only their own lives, but also the countries that they spent so much time in and the institutions that shaped their lives. It also provided the impetus to visit places that her father was connected with, where her mother could not travel and also to reflect on her own upbringing in a very different educational establishment. It looks at the secrets of generations, as both grandfathers diverted from the obvious course. It glimpses the differences of a country that maintained its secrecy concerning the treatment of children taken up for different lives in relatively recent times. Covering the period between the years 1933 and 1997, this book provides pictures of lives lived in a tumultuous century, when travel opened up and letters kept all sorts of relationships alive. This is a book which perhaps rushes around as much as its central characters, but in its pages reveals much about people who lived in different times with different agendas, determined to make their mark. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this remarkable book.

Much of Lia, Una’s mother’s life, was spent in the country of Switzerland. Although managing to survive as largely neutral in the Second World War, it also manifested a practice known as “verdingen” or indentured servitude, where children were removed from their families and put to work on farms. Although such children were seen as disadvantaged before they were taken away, possibly through family deaths, and some were treated with kindness, the possibilities of abuse were no doubt present. While Lea was not one of those children, and had parents who made sacrifices for her and her brother, there were members of her family who were taken away. She suffers from ill health for much of her life, including the TB which would later prevent her from entering the USA. Peter’s father Harry was a victim of family religious differences as well as serving in war, and although Peter and Harry were reconciled, it made for a complicated home life. Peter spent several years as a teacher in private schools in America, which obviously had a strong effect on his later ambitions to teach and the principles of his own educational efforts.

As this book is threaded through with two plays, “Hamlet” and “Our Town”, there are many quotations from a variety of sources as well as the letters and diaries never meant for publication. Una states that she goes “to the theatre not to be distracted or entertained, but to witness stories that deal with family trauma”, and it is into family trauma that much of this book delves, not just of her own extended family but also of friends and acquaintances. This book is a fluent look at remarkable individuals in complex families that could find echoes in many experiences in the twentieth century, and as such is a fascinating piece of social history as well as individual memories.