Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 11, 2023

The Sirens Sing (2022), by Kristel Thornell

I do like it when authors try something new.  Not for the sake of it, but to achieve something different, something that only works in the novel because the novelist has been adventurous.

I’ve been reading Kristel Thornell’s novels since she first published her Vogel Prize-winning Night Street in 2010, and each one has been different.

Night Street was a fictionalisation of the life of the Impressionist painter Clarice Beckett, but though it was Thornell’s debut novel, it was a masterclass in evoking contrasts in tone.  Where the narrative is about Beckett’s confinement to home duties because of her duty to her demanding parents the tone is claustrophobic; at night when she is free, the narrative expands and the tone is sensual.

On the Blue Train (2016) is a mystery, but it’s a whydunit, not a whodunit. The story is bookended by the framework of Agatha Christie’s unexplained brief disappearance, but within that the narration focusses on the thoughts and emotions of Teresa and her admirer Harry.  Thornell’s novels are character-driven in a social context, and I’ve always liked that.

The Sirens Sing is a step away from narratives with a real-life prompt, and its two-part framework is unusual because its patterns reverberate across generations but the novel begins with the later time frame.  It is also a social novel because it explores how disadvantage shapes personality and behaviour.  Thornell shows how a lack of social confidence impacts on people of modest means when they move into a different milieu.

Odysseus and the Sirens, eponymous vase of the Siren Painter c.475BC (Wikipedia)

The Sirens who fail to lure Odysseus away from his quest do so only because his crew restrains him.  At his command, the men blocked their own ears, and tied him to the mast so that while he could hear the Sirens’ song and feel the desire it evoked, he could not act on it.  In different ways, Thornell’s characters hear the siren song of desire and do not act on it.  But the unconsummated loss haunts them all their lives.

The first part of the novel features adolescents Heather and David in the 1990s, attracted to each other by their mutual love of learning the Italian language. For both Heather and David, ambitions are constrained by the limitations of their backgrounds as the children of single parents.  Each is hesitant in developing the relationship, not least because they are both from disadvantaged backgrounds and are wary of being judged and rejected.  Sometimes the rent isn’t paid and the pantry is bare.  Getting dressed for an outing is filled with anxiety because their wardrobes are so limited.

After agonising over his very few clothing choices, David had gone with the old Levi’s, the Doc Martens he’d bought with his first pay from the hotel and the green-and-black-checked shirt he hoped was more urban-trendy than loutish-slacker Westie.  He fussed with the shirt, tucking it in, untucking, tucking, untucking. (p.21)

Their opportunities for meeting extend beyond school when Heather invites David to join her in an Italian conversation class with Ada. Fatally, Heather also invites Robbie to join the class as well although he is only a beginner in Italian.

Ada is exotic to them not because she and her husband Filippo are Italian but because they live in a world of wealth and privilege that Heather and David have never seen before.  Ada is an art aficionado and she has paintings by Lloyd Rees and Brett Whitely on the walls. Robbie — with an unusual talent for his age — is really more interested in art than Italian and, awestruck, he recognises these paintings straight away.

His first glimpse of her garden, viewed with his artist’s eye for detail, comes as a culture shock:

The fragrance got pure and he saw that it came from pots of dainty white flowers edging the verandah like miniature foamy clouds.  A splashing drew his attention to a fountain, marbly stone, the flow from an urn balanced on the graceful shoulder of a young woman.  Past that were neat shrubs and masses of mauve rhododendrons, crepe myrtles with flowers of surprisingly deep pinks and purples, and then a dense clump of cedars that seemed part of an old forest; a glint of shiny white through the trunks, down low.  Three tall gums were so casually magnificent he felt a sort of envy, wanted to paint them, get inside them and hang out there.  Of course you knew in theory that rich people had it good, but it was a shock to actually see how picturesquely good they could have it, be confronted with the plush setting of their lives.  There was no way to compare this with the short redbrick fence, the short, scratchy lawn, the short house in Lithgow with its chilling seventies-eyeshadow-blue walls. (p.43)

Ada introduces them to a lifestyle that they have never experienced.

‘A toast,’ Ada said huskily, her glass high.  ‘To you all, to the end of school, to the past and to the future.’

To the younger people, those Italian words were intoxicating: singsong, plump, sprung.  Listening, they felt an expansion, something within them becoming more elastic, elongating. The occasion was a sort of initiation ritual, Ada and Filippo ushering them into their language and culture, into adulthood.  They had never before sat down to such a table, made of solid, glossy wood, so extravagant with candles, food and wine and laid with a level of ceremony that would have befitted a religious rite. (p.95)

But while David is hesitating over his attraction to Heather because he fears that she is attracted to the more confident Robbie, the Siren song of desire is not just exerting its influence on the young.  And, like the Sirens of The Odyssey, it is not benign.

Part 2 brings the story of David’s mother Jan.  In an unusual twist, Jan the counsellor is in therapy herself.  She is troubled by how things fell apart after November 11th, 1975.  For her, the Dismissal of the Whitlam government (1972-1975) whose reforms to university education changed lives, brought chaos in both her personal life and the wider society. She dreams of it, and wakes with a feeling of doom.

‘Sadness, some kind of regret, I think.  Well, everything came apart after that.  I mean, obviously it was all very fragile before that.  But in a way that was the start of the real chaos.’ (p.145)

The patterns of this novel reveal themselves when Jan, lacking in confidence, hesitates to act on an attraction she feels, is bullied into an unwise marriage by her mother, and is betrayed by infidelity.  And her pain is exacerbated by a know-it-all male who thinks that trauma can be displaced by adventure:

‘You’ve got to turn things that freak you out into an adventure, feed off them.  Otherwise they shut you down, they define you.’

‘Good philosophy, Jan says, finding him insistent and patronising.  (p.204)

Not all the men in this novel behave badly, but when they do, it is shocking.

The most poignant of all these characters is David’s grandmother Lorna who emerges in Part 2 of the novel. Troubled by voices, she has escaped from the confinement of an institution and is searching her old haunts in Sydney for Claude.  She’s  wonderful character, an old Communist with a lively personality, but like the others, she has difficulty expressing her inner life.  Doing a bunk with her secret five buck note hidden in her tatty old handbag, she has learned wisdom the hard way:

The next test will be the driver, who has seen her and is preparing to stop.  He’s starting to look her over.  He’s young and a redhead like herself, which could be in her favour.  It says so much about a person, maybe everything you need to know, how they treat you when they’ve got you in their power. Whether they use the power or refuse it.  What you have on your side in such a situation is that you are seeing them, aren’t you?  Who they are underneath. (p.163)


You can hear Kristel Thornell talk about The Sirens Sing here.

Author: Kristel Thornell
Title: The Sirens Sing
Cover design by Lisa White
Publisher: Fourth Estate, 2022
ISBN: 9781460762660, pbk., 294 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Image credit:

Odysseus and the Sirens, eponymous vase of the Siren Painter c.475BC (Wikipedia) by ArchaiOptix – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


  1. Sounds like just the sort of book I’d like Lisa. The poor ingenue(s) can be great in thoughtful hands because, as you say, it encompasses character and social issues.


    • I don’t know anything about Thornell’s personal background, but if she hasn’t lived this herself, she is astonishingly observant. That bit about the garden really spoke to me. I remember visiting a friend who lived in Grange Rd Toorak, and she was late so I sat in her front garden and thought, this is how the wealthy have been able to write their books and achieve so many other things, it’s because they have a perfect, quiet, big, beautiful space to think in.


      • Ah yes, sounds ideal but how many wealthy have written books?


        • Most of British Lit until about the mid 20th century was, with rare exceptions, written by privileged people.


          • That feels a bit sweeping to me, but you are probably right about the majority.

            I guess I think of Dickens and his poor background. I think of Austen, even, who was not poor, but neither was she privileged with a lot of leisure time. Orwell was sort of middle-class but not leisured class I think. H. G. Wells didn’t come from well-to-do background either. E M Forster had some money behind him I think. I guess it depends on what we mean by privileged, but when I look at many of the authors I know a bit about, what comes to mind is difficult or erratic backgrounds rather than privileged ones providing leisure for writing. I guess, says she, thinking this through, most weren’t poverty-stricken so that is, in a sense, privileged?


            • Well, I did say ‘most of’. And by privileged, I meant not working class. Not living hand-to-mouth. Educated beyond rudimentary literacy. Secure housing and domestic staff. Access to, and confidence in, moving about within social classes in class-conscious Britain. Plus there is a chasm of difference between falling on hard times (as in Dickens) and being born into hard times and never getting out of it.
              Elizabeth Bennett isn’t ‘impoverished genteel’ and she’s not from the aristocracy but she has access and confidence in circles well above her and she can marry ‘up’. Her sisters, for all their folly, marry well too.
              Even Elizabeth Gaskell, whose writing I really like because of her social conscience, has a loyal domestic who works unpaid for Margaret Hale and her family.


              • An enjoyable argument! I agree with Lisa. English writers were nearly all of the middle and upper middle classes and that is the only viewpoint you ever got. Of course I admire Gaskell and Orwell for caring about the poor (and no doubt Dickens, but I don’t read him). Austen may not have had much money of her own, but she doesn’t even bother to give her servants names.


                • Lisa picks herself up off the floor because Bill agrees with her…


                • I was contemplating adding ‘!’ to I agree with Lisa.


                • *chuckle*


              • Yes, you did, but I guess my point is that to have the leisure to write needs more money than not working class. Jane Austen didn’t write it seems pretty much from when her father died to when her brother gave them Chawton. We don’t know all the reasons but chances are much of it was because life was too precarious. She wasn’t on the streets, and have had some help, but they had very little to live on and had to “do” much for themselves.

                Still we are disagreeing around the edges because it’s an interesting exercise!


                • But I didn’t mention leisure. I said ‘quiet space to think’. Even in the cramped sitting room of the Austen household, Austen was in entirely different circumstances to a family of 10-15 living in a cottage on an estate where father and the children when they were old enough worked as farm labourers. Or in some slum where children worked in factories or in a mine along with their parents.
                  With no prospect of ever doing anything else, with accents that condemned them to their class for life, and highly unlikely even to cross paths with the likes of Jane Austen. Gaskell had to take her heroine well out of her comfort zone in North and South, and engineer some lets-face-it unlikely scenarios to have Margaret Hale develop a friendship with the factory workers.

                  Liked by 1 person

                • You did … I was extrapolating … that definition though encompasses far more than people in Toorak with beautiful gardens. I clearly misread your original sense of “privileged”. The people you describe here not only don’t have quiet space to think and then write. They don’t even have it to read. That’s a different ballgame altogether. So I’ll bow out here as having been at cross-purposes!

                  Liked by 1 person

  2. I can see why you have been following this author, though, as with so many, she is not one that I have noticed.
    I remember my own introduction to Italian food, far more prosaic than Ada and David’s, Toto’s pizza in Lygon St, the very first in Melbourne, and a revelation after a lifetime (18 years!) of chops and mashed potatoes.


    • My introduction to Italian food (apart from a cappucino at Genevieve’s) was when my older sister started cooking it as a Young Bride.
      But as I say, the real power behind Thornell’s evocation of these characters is the portrayal of the social gulf and the young people’s dawning awareness of what it actually means. It’s not the exotic food. It’s the power and ease of wealth, and the access it brings to all sorts of things. And while Italian food isn’t exotic any more now, that social gulf is still exactly the same, maybe worse, and its disempowering effects are still horrible.
      There’s a brilliant scene where Jan is at university being patronised by North Shore types, and she knows she belongs there because of her marks and her hard work and her intelligence. But she still feels awkward. And that is just awful, awful, awful.


  3. This book is on my reading list. Now, to find time!


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