Roberta “Bertie” Lightfood was just a young girl when she contracted Polio. Life as she knows it, as a six-year-old growing up in Melbourne in 1954 ceases abruptly. Luckily she and her mother share a family trait – that of being strong-willed. Mama refuses to accept any pity for her daughter’s condition and she also will not tolerate any excuses for not beating polio. This is not the first time that Mama has had the experience of dealing with Polio, her brother was also affected when he was a child. To Mama, Bertie is The Beloved. Mama is determined that Bertie will not become a victim. On the contrary she is adamant that she will succeed, for Mama has big life expectations for her daughter. Bertie and her mother share a very intense mother-daughter relationship. Bertie survives Polio but she is left with a crippled foot, calipers and a boot.
She takes refuge in a world bathed in art, escaping into her drawings and comforted by people’s colours (auras). Art becomes her saviour and her survival tool but ultimately her retreat into this world divides the bond that she and her mother have shared. The family moves to Port Moresby when Bertie’s father gets work there. With the move, Bertie feels she is presented with a blank canvas. The opportunity to start again and paint the picture-perfect life that she truly desires. Post-colonial Port Moresby presents her with plenty of stimulus with its tropical colours and a saturated palette. However life in Moresby is not idyllic and challenges arise.
Bertie’s mother fears that art makes her a loner and tries to push her in the direction of friends, a career and aiming for a good life. Bertie resists and fights long and hard to convince her Mama that Polio in fact made her a loner. However no matter how hard she tries Bertie’s Mama won’t be convinced that art is the very thing that has helped Bertie to remain connected to the world and helped her to understand people.
This is a debut novel for author Annah Faulkner, who won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for (an) Emerging Author. She says that “The Beloved was going to be a memoir but I couldn’t stop telling lies”. This novel is touching and beautiful.