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Whole Wild World review: Tom Dusevic examines his life and times

16 July 2016 352 views No Comment

Whole Wild World
NEWSOUTH, $29.99

According to Walkley Award-winning journalist Tom Dusevic, plying his trade is a demanding business, rather like bricklaying with a deadline. Dusevic usefully puts it thus: “Sentences are laid down like courses, one on top of the other, aiming for plumb on shaky ground.”

As those of us who have crafted a memoir know, conjuring up a sustained exploration of one’s past, including that of one’s parents and siblings, is an even more difficult task.

Set in suburban Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s, Dusevic’s memoir tries to make sense not just of the author’s own life, but also of the life and identity of his parents, Joso (Joe) and Milenka. As the wonderfully evocative ‘Whole Wild World’ makes clear, Dusevic’s parents were post-war Croatian refugees (sometimes termed “displaced persons”) who in the 1950s had separately fled the oppressive regime of Josip Tito in Yugoslavia.

Unsurprisingly, in Australia, Joso and Milenka remained fervent Croatian nationalists and passionate anti-communists.

On almost every page of this finely written and engaging memoir, the indomitable spirit of his parents and their struggle to survive in a predominantly Anglo-Celtic outer suburban Sydney shines through.

Born in Australia in 1964, Tomislav (Tommy or Tom) was extremely fortunate to have a talented older brother, Sime (Sammy or Sam), who helped pave the way for him, especially at St Joseph’s Catholic school and also at sport. Unusually for a Croatian, Dusevic was a keen player of cricket and especially of rugby league, whose heroes from the Canterbury Bulldogs and the South Sydney Rabbitohs helped mould his sporting and later his distinguished writing life.

In many ways Dusevic’s memoir is an uplifting read. Indeed, writing as a child among children he reveals that there’s a joy in searching out the intricacies of what was to be the whole wide world , which in his mispronunciation was initially rendered as the “whole wild world”.

Dusevic demonstrates a life-long love of language and a fascination with the meaning and function of words. As in his own life, often sport and the play of language intermix.

Here he is remembering a lost time of adolescent innocence and play: “Half-time oranges remain the sweetest fruit I’ve ever tasted, their magical qualities impossible to replicate at home. Being on the field was the best place to see live footy. The action was faster than on TV, especially when we had the ball. It was easy to forget to back up or chase, lost in the most splendid moment, watching a zippy kid weave through a whole team to score a try.” What lovely writing!

In its generosity of spirit and its vivid evocation of a life and times long gone, a time when as children we drank free little bottles of milk each school morning, ‘Whole Wild World’ reminds me of another recent, similar-sounding memoir, ‘Growing Wild’ by the English-born Michael Wilding.

As with Wilding’s multilayered memoir, Dusevic’s book is an important historical record of a seminal period in Australia’s migrant history and affords a revealing insight into the life and mind of a writer.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books, including a memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’

The Sydney Morning Herald, July 16-17, 2016. Spectrum, Books pp 26-27.
Also in The Age, July 16-17, 2016.

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