by Brendan Donaghy » 15 Dec 2019
[Following is an official OnlineBookClub.org review of “Into the Eyes of Hungry” by Leila Kulpas.]
4 out of 4 stars
Into the Eyes of Hungry is a memoir by a retired psychiatrist, Leila Kulpas. Described by the author as a work of creative non-fiction, the book details her upbringing two hundred miles north of Sydney in rural Australia in the 1940s and 1950s. The title is a reference to an old horse called Hungry, rather than to any lack of food.
The book describes the author’s childhood from the age of about three until the time she leaves home at seventeen. The story divides into four parts. The first one deals with the author’s earliest memories from when the family lived in tents for a period and made a living trading rabbit skins. At this point, Leila is the youngest of three children, along with her brother Claude and sister Amelia. They are then joined by a fourth child, Laurence. The second and longest section of the book, from when the author was five, describes the family’s move back to the mountain to live in an isolated farm five thousand feet above sea level. The third part is from when the author was twelve or thirteen and taking the first steps towards adulthood. The fourth section is an Afterword that informs the reader about what happened to Leila, along with the other members of her family, in later life. The book doesn’t always run in a strict chronological line, as the author sometimes allows her memory to move backward or forwards through her childhood. There are about fifty photographs included in the book which help put faces to the people described in the text.
This is a fine book, but it can be a hard read in places. The author describes the difficult relationship she had with her parents. Her father fought a constant battle with alcohol, while her mother had her own demons which caused her to fly into uncontrollable rages. The consequences of this were that Leila and, to a lesser extent her siblings, endured traumatic days growing up. Early in the book, she recounts an incident when, as a toddler, she strays into an enclosure where the horses are feeding. She recalls looking at her father’s old horse Hungry and feeling safe in his ‘huge brown eyes full of warmth and caring.’ It is a measure of the tension that she lived with constantly that her strongest memory of safety is this one. Leila’s story is not all gloom and despondency, however. There is a lot of love in the book too. Aunts, uncles, and friends of the family provided the children with much-needed stability at times. Moreover, it is clear from the book that Leila’s mother and father were loving parents who sacrificed much for their children, despite their flaws.
The author writes beautifully. Her depiction of life growing up in such an inhospitable landscape makes fascinating reading. She brings alive for the reader the reality of living so close to nature with all its concomitant joy and drudgery. Her dialogue rings true while the characters she talks about are rounded and relatable. She tells her story with searing honesty, which possibly makes this book an uncomfortable read for those family members still alive.
If I disliked anything about the book, it was that I found the footnotes a bit irritating at times. Mostly, these are to do with scraps of dialect or names of tools that often could have been guessed at from the context. On other occasions, one will read the footnote provided, but then find that the subject is explained in a conversation within the text. This is a minor gripe, however, which did not spoil my enjoyment of the story.
I am giving this book four stars out of four. It has been professionally edited as I found only a handful of minor errors. There are a few curse words scattered around, and while there is no sexual content, rape and other adult themes are discussed. Religion doesn’t feature too much in the book as both the author’s parents were atheists. For these reasons, I would recommend the book to older teenagers and adults who enjoy memoirs and social histories.