Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 23, 2018

The Sisters’ Song, by Louise Allan #BookReview

The Sisters’ Song is the debut novel of WA author Louise Allen, who blogs at Louise Allen and also hosts a popular series called Writers in the Attic.  I’ve been following her for a while now, so I was very pleased to see her novel finally make it into print.

It’s historical fiction, but of the near past, starting in the 1920s in Tasmania, and spanning seventy years.  It tells of a very different and much harsher world, when social and religious rigidity compromised people’s lives with devastating effect.  Nora and Ida lose their father to stomach cancer when they are still just small children, and their mother doesn’t cope.  The inadequacy of mental health services is also a strand in the novel, showing the misery that occurred because people were expected just to get on with things without the kinds of counselling and support available today.

So as well as being deprived of a father, the girls are also subjected to their mother’s erratic moods and cruelties.  They end up living with their grandmother but their young lives are blighted by fear of their mother and her moods.  And because Nora seems to have been favoured with the looks, the talent and the approval and admiration of the adults, Ida finds it hard to reconcile love for her sister with the jealousy she feels.  It becomes even more difficult when Nora, who wants to have a musical career, ends up isolated in the Tasmanian bush by an early marriage and three unwanted children – while Ida in Hobart would love to have a family, but finds that she can’t bring a baby to term.  The grief this causes lasts her lifetime, as I know from friends, it does, and it can be triggered at any time by events that seem insignificant to others.

I pushed my sobs down again and wiped the tears from my cheeks.  When my breathing had slowed, I went out to the kitchen.

Len was down by the back fence, surrounded by a yellow circle of light from the kerosene lamp.  He sat on a stool, a wooden needle wound with twine in his hand, mending a hole in a fishing net.  He shuttled the needle in and out, in and out, looping, checking, hitching, looping, checking, hitching across the breadth of the hole.

As I watched him, I imagined our three boys.  They’d have been dark like him but taller.  They’d be grown up by now and working – one for Stan, maybe, the plumber next door; another for Max, the butcher; and the youngest, Leonard, he would have been sitting by the fence with his father, helping him mend the nets.  I had a feeling those two would have been close. (p. 263)

The conventions of the time exacerbate the fault lines in this family.  Religion seems to be more of an obligation than a solace and the roles that women are expected to fulfil are very limited.  Nora never gets over the loss of her dreams of a musical career, and her children bear the brunt of her resentments, looking to their Aunty Ida for the mothering that they don’t get at home.  The husbands, Alf and Len, who love these two fraught women, are a little too good to be true in that they are unfailingly kind, but their inadequacies of understanding and communication seem authentic for the era, and one in particular suffers in silence with devastating consequences.  What’s also authentic is the way that shame made families keep secrets about matters that are not considered shameful today, and this created crises of identity and ruptured family life when the silence was broken.   Careful research and a profound understanding of the era also shows up in other small ways, such as women being more isolated because they don’t know how to drive and because phones are for the wealthy.

The characters suffer because of the expectation that the role of wife and mother was the only option for women, and the reforms and changes of attitude that accompanied the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s came too late for this generation.  For them, it was the next generation that had to find a better way.

The Sisters’ Song is a well-crafted debut with a compelling storyline.  It would make a good mini-series, with Noni Hazlehurst in the complex role of the very difficult mother and the stunning scenery of Tasmania as a backdrop!

Author: Louise Allan
Title: The Sisters’ Song
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2018
ISBN: 9781760296315
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Top Titles Brighton, $29.99
(A&U sent me a proof copy, but I don’t read proof copies, see my review policy).

Available from Fishpond: The Sisters’ Song

 


Responses

  1. Love that you’ve already cast the mini-series!

    • You are just the person to know: Who would you suggest for a strong silent type of bushman who likes carving blackwood furniture?

      • Perhaps not the right age but the first actor to pop to mind is Nicholas Eadie – he was a heartthrob in the eighties but perhaps has matured into a more rugged look?!

  2. I read a little about Louise Allan’s research methods for this book and it is great to see that her diligence has paid off. I’m looking forward to reading this. Now, to the casting of that bushman . . .

    • It would be interesting to see what a much younger reader would make of it. I used to know people like the ones in this novel… they’re all dead now but they were a special ‘type’, like the ones in Cloudstreet, a sort of Australian that just doesn’t exist any more.

      • I grew up surrounded by people like this, which is probably why I wanted to write them. But you’re right—sadly, they don’t exist any longer.
        I’m lucky enough to have an audio recording of my parents’ wedding and the reception. As kids, we loved it because it was our parents’ voices and it was funny to listen to the speeches and telegrams, etc. But now, it’s a beautiful snapshot of history. The old-fashioned Australian accent and turn of phrase is striking because we no longer hear it.

        • Well, the people I knew were in their 80s when I was in my twenties, and just getting to know Australians outside my childhood orbit (which from the time we migrated here was basically school, music lessons and not much else because my parents didn’t socialise much.) But when I married The Ex, I met his large extended family, and they were a fascinating bunch. Of his parents’ generation and older, some had grown up in the Mallee, had lived through the Depression, fought a different war to the one I knew about from my English parents and so on. And yes, some of them used words like ‘beaut’ and ‘ripper’ too:)

          • Gosh, they sound like my relatives! Don’t forget that I grew up in Tassie, which, back then, was about 50 years behind the mainland! ;-)

            • I think there might have been people like that everywhere, because Tim Winton writes about them too.

  3. Thank you for this thorough review, Lisa. I hadn’t thought anything about a movie version, but I agree with you completely about Noni Hazlehurst—she’d be perfect as the mother!

  4. Fabulous review. I agree with your recommendation for a mini-series!

  5. Jack Thompson is sitting by the phone as I write. He’s been practicing that accent since Sunday Too Far Away (he learned it from Chips Rafferty I’m sure).

    • Hmm, nice, but not burly enough. We’re talking gentle giant…


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