Review: The Thing About Oliver

Deborah Kelly has a way of cramming gallons of heart into very small spaces. Her picture books and junior novels entertain, yet never fail to unleash unexpected emotions, all perfectly on the mark for her intended reading audience.

The Thing About Oliver is a brief but brilliant novel that will appeal to confident young primary aged readers yet also strike a distinct chord with those of the middle grade age group. Fast paced, funny, and deeply satisfying, this story touches on the subject of Autism and its impact on family life and sibling mental well being.

Tilly's heart is set on becoming a marine scientist. She lives, breathes and draws marine creatures and has turned herself into a veritable walking Google page of sea creatures and their habitats. The only glitch in her plans is her distance from anything remotely resembling the ocean - they live in the drought-stricken outback - and the fact she can't even swim, let alone owns a swimsuit.

As crazy as that premise sounds, the day-to-day dramas she and her mother have to deal with coping with her non-verbal eight-year-old Autistic brother, Oliver is the weighted diving bell that anchors her firmly to a bed of hopelessness and reminds us of the seriousness of the story.

Oliver is intensely sensitive, barely eats, objects violently to change and has to undergo regular therapy sessions that chew up the family's meager cash puddles. It's not easy living with Oliver - at all, yet despite her occasional frustrations, Tilly has learnt to accommodate his behaviour into her life, locking those things most precious to her - her special journal for instance - away from Oliver whilst still harbouring a deep, unflinching affection for him. It's easy to love Oliver. It's just hard to like him...

So when their mother announces a sea-change to the Queensland coastal city of Townsville, concerns not only grow wings and take off, they circle like hungry vultures waiting to rip Tilly's dreams to pieces.

Will a new start result in fresh opportunities, like a chance to learn how to finally swim? Or will it be the straw that destroys the fragile family circle of three? After moving in with her Aunt Janine, Tilly finds out what it's like to feel like Oliver; completely out of her depth.

The Thing About Oliver will of course invite understanding from those youngsters in similar situations, where a sibling inadvertently attracts 110% of wanted and unwanted attention, causing the other to feel as invisible as glass in a fish tank. Yet this incredibly sensitive first-person tale takes all of us deep within Tilly's imperfect world in which she relies on her dreams to remain buoyant.

Each of Kelly's characters emit charm, chaos, and above all, love. This is a story about remaining strong, sticking together, taking chances, family relationships and dreaming big that flows and ebbs as gently and enticingly as an incoming tide. Highly recommended.

Title: The Thing About Oliver
Author: Deborah Kelly
Publisher:  Wombat Books, $14.99
Publication Date: October 2019
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781925563818
For ages: 8+
Type: Junior Novel

Buy the Book: Wombat Books


Norah Colvin said…
Sounds like a story with which many children will identify, Dimity. Thanks for your glowing review.
DimbutNice said…
It certainly touched me in many ways, Norah. I hope children feel the same. I rate it as one of those special stories that resonate with adults and young people alike.

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