Review: The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan

When I was growing up, my Dad would mostly read biographies of prominent people: actors, musicians, politicians, public figures. But every now and then he would casually pick up one of my sister’s chick-lit books and have a bit of a gander. He was unfazed by the branding; he blithely called them “human interest” novels. I always thought this was kind of cool.

Perhaps this is why, when I was told that The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan was a book about motherhood and sisters, aimed primarily at women who were likely to be mothers themselves – and not at young childless men like myself – I wasn’t overly fazed. In fact, I was quite interested to experiment with reading beyond the borders of my usual genres and see what this story was all about.

And I’m bloody glad I did.

I was especially keen for two reasons. Firstly, since I kept seeing stuff on social media about people bursting into tears when they were reading it – which is a damn strong reaction for a book to provoke, and probably the one that must engender the most pride and satisfaction in an author.

Secondly, the author, Louise Allan, is well-known in Perth writing circles and I have a great deal of respect for her. Not only is Louise a fervent supporter of new and budding writers on Twitter, especially locals, she is also one of those people who radiates an aura of kindness. Before making a mid-life career change into becoming an author, she was a doctor, and I can only envy the empathy her patients must have received in those years. Most doctors usually just grunt at me.

So – what’s The Sisters’ Song about? *cough* SPOILERS AHEAD *cough*

Initially set in rural Tasmania in the 1920s, the novel centres on the relationship between two young girls, Ida and Nora. After their beloved father passes away, their mother becomes a bit of a useless mess and they are cared for primarily by their grandmother. During this time and during the post-grief haze, the girls’ personalities start to shine through: Ida is a nurturer, loves her doll, and wants to have a family; Nora, meanwhile, is a talented singer and pianist. With the encouragement of her grandmother, she pursues a career in opera singing – leading to small rifts with Ida and a more profound separation from her mother. As the girls reach adulthood in the late 1930s, it seems the book has set everything in motion for the rest of the novel: Ida is married to Len Bushell, she’s preggo and finally about to start a family of her own; Nora’s at a conservatorium in Melbourne, her singing having brought her wide acclaim and a ticket to a different life on the mainland, and she’s fallen in love with one of her tutors, the seductive Marco.

Forgive me for being a dunce, but I figured the rest of the novel was going to be about Ida raising rosy-cheeked babes in the dewy mists of Tasmania, planting her bulbs and scouring her pots while listening to an operatic coloratura on the gramophone. And Nora would wed Marco in the spring, continue swanning around the conservatorium in a sparkly red dress and then graduate to singing her own coloraturas on the stages of Milan and Vienna and New York, a regular Dame Nellie Melba.

Well, fuck me sideways. This is when the novel decides to punch you right in the guts, and then as you’re keeling over on the bitumen with spittle dangling from your broken jaw, it kicks you in the teeth for good measure.

Everything turns to shit!

At the beginning adult life, just as both girls seem to be on course to get everything they’ve ever wanted, it gets cruelly ripped away from them both. Ida miscarries tragically, and we experience the crushing lows of that. Just in case the author hadn’t beaten us into emotional submission already, Ida miscarries twice more, culminating in a breathtaking scene where she essentially races through a hospital against the Matron’s wishes to see her baby’s dead body. It is horrific.

Meanwhile, Nora’s career is torn from her when she falls pregnant to her tutor, Marco, only to discover he is married and she has been carrying on an illicit affair. The conservatorium is shamed by her female whoreish-ness and gives her the boot – because, in that era, Marco’s affair and her pregnancy are entirely her fault, of course, and in any case, premarital sex is unbecoming of an opera singer. In one fell swoop, Nora loses the love of her life and her dream of being a singer, and is left with a bitter reminder of the life she could have led in Teddy, her first son, and Alf Hill, the stoic miller who agrees to raise Marco’s son as his own.

This cruel irony – that Ida is left childless and aching for children, while Nora pops out three and couldn’t care less – is the source of the tension that drives the rest of the novel forward. Over several decades, the flowers borne from the seeds of this mutual bitterness wreak havoc with their relationships with their husbands, with their mother, with the children, with each other and, most importantly, with their own selves.

Louise Allan has woven a masterful tale here: a piece of realist fiction that offers a crystal-clear window into the traumas that bind and shape a family. Her prose is direct and clean – my favourite kind of prose. Her taut writing is especially effective in the novel’s more emotional scenes (and there are many): she makes more from saying less, and the novel is much stronger for it. The pacing is good, although (and I think this is my only feasible criticism of the novel) I think the first act, before the shit hits the fan, could have been a little shorter; it moved a little slower, whereas parts two and three I read at a cracking pace because the pace of the action was so absorbing. I absolutely loved the strength of Ida’s voice, the gentle humour that lifted the reader through the gaps between the more painful scenes, and the unexpected twists and turns this story takes as the years progress.

TSS folded pages
I told myself I’d fold the corner of the page of The Sisters’ Song each time something powerful happened. It ended up looking like this … (the top is the end of the book)

In fact, what makes this story feel so realistic is that the cruel shifts of fate were not hammered in relentlessly, but rather were spaced out strategically (and rhythmically). This is what happens in most families, I think. There were massive downs: not just the aforementioned traumas, but stuff like the girls’ mother eventually passing away, and Nora’s abuse of her children, their fear of her, her mental illness, and even what happens to Ted and, ultimately, Alf, later in the novel. And possibly the most heartbreaking moment in the novel: Ida racing down the street after the Doctor. Breathtaking.

But for most, family (and life) is not typically a purely harrowing experience, and Allan reflects that so well here. Like any family, there are seasons of joy, brief moments when things seem to be tolerable and perhaps, optimistically, on the upswing. This happens for both girls, whether through Ida being able to care for Nora’s children and pretend they are her own, or Nora later developing a new lease on life and playing the piano for her local church again.

Ultimately, the ebbs and flows of family over a long period of time were so well-drawn here, and as someone with a sprawling Sicilian-Australian family, I really related to that aspect of the novel. I felt like I was peering through a window into another family’s actual life, and there were times when I wondered if maybe Ida and Nora could have been real people back in the day. I could certainly imagine them as real.

Moreover, the novel’s undulations are relatable because, sadly, this is sometimes how life goes. Hopes and dreams can be dashed, and this is one of the cruellest things about being a human being. People’s lives are ultimately marked by how they respond to their own devastation: defeat and surrender, or hope despite the pain, or stoic resilience (resilience being, I think, an underlying theme here, too).

This, actually, is what I feel is the main point of the novel, in a way: how we deal with the damage done to us by life. Both Ida and Nora, and even Len and Alf, are wounded humans, trying to continue on in spite of their own ongoing pain. Mental illness stalks the edges of this story, only being named as such once, really, when Nora is in hospital, but it’s everywhere. Ida suffers terribly from the grief of her miscarriages; Len is deeply hurt by her excursions to the country to take care of Nora’s kids instead of him; Nora’s twice-broken heart (love and career) bleeds all over her life; and Alf …

Man, I feel like I could write a separate essay just about the character of Alf Hill. In some ways, he is the most tragic character in the novel. His moment near the end of the novel absolutely knocked the air out of my lungs: he is a good man and his life is an example of what stoicism can do for men – for better, and for worse. He was very relatable.

Likewise, I found myself relating to Ted as he reached adulthood. It’s not often I read about another seventeen-year-old Italian-Australian who is bookish and angsty and has both an attitude problem and an identity crisis. I became quite fond of him, which I’m not sure was supposed to happen, but I think I am drawn to tragic boys for some reason.

Speaking of relating – I can see why the marketing arm of Allen & Unwin would pitch this kind of fiction to women and mothers, as they would be the primary market that relates to a tale like this. But I want to say here that I related to this story a lot as a young man, and I suspect that gets overlooked in the (entirely necessary) discussion about how to position a title in the market. I’ll admit the specific motherhoody aspects are less relatable for a male audience, for sure – although the amount of times Ida had to scour a pot did successfully put me off ever doing the dishes again. But moreover, so much in this novel – from the mental health stuff, to the resilience, to parental disapproval and family breakdown, to Ted’s angst – is actually quite relatable for a male reader because all this stuff happens to us, too.

Even the prominent role opera music plays in this story resonated with me. I don’t think I know a single opera song, or if calling it an “opera song” is even correct, but as a big fan of rock music I know that my world has been torn open by guitar riffs and solos, and I could relate so much to both Ida and Nora’s relationship to music.

And stuff that is probably meant to be specifically relatable for a female audience can sometimes be entirely universal. A scene early in the novel, where Grandma offers her old red gown to Nora, but not to Ida, struck a very deep chord in me. Not because I am sensitive to the correct handing-down protocol of ancient frocks, but because there is a universality in feeling what Ida felt in that moment: that her family/parent figure did not regard her as the special one; that she was not as loved as her sibling.

This, really, is Louise Allan’s strength in writing: she can take the minutiae of quotidian life and spin up a moment as poignant as an operatic crescendo.

The Sisters’ Song is a triumphant debut novel by a talented West Aussie (and Tasmanian) author. I loved it, and I recommend reading it if you are in possession of a pulse.

Holden

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Some Full-Arsed Goals (Because I Don’t Half-Arse Anything)

In the spirit of yesterday’s blog post about failure being useful to reassess and re-calibrate, I developed a few goals for the week ahead.

My thinking is to share them here, record them not just in writing but publicly, to keep me accountable.

So here they are:

1. Get up on time for the #5amwritersclub (four times)

As I talked about earlier, whether I make it to the #5amwritersclub in the morning or not tends to affect my mood for the day. So, my goal this week is to ensure I get along to the writing group roughly on time for at least four mornings. (And I already did it on Monday, so I’m sitting at 1/4 already, yewww!)

I’m not putting pressure on myself to write a certain number of words, or to create amazing stories, because to some extent these things are beyond my control. But I can control whether or not I show up, and how much time I put in, so that’s what I will measure.

2. Hit the Gym (four times)

I used to find it pretty easy to fit in four gym sessions per week, because I was training for fitness which tended to mean three shorter sessions of weights, and one session of fasted cardio.

Now that things are ramping up more, I’m required to do four sessions of weights per week, and they tend to run to about two hours a session, so fitting this in has become more of a challenge. However, I’m not going to shy away from it – plus, I know how good I feel when I actually hit my fitness goals.

My plan is to hit the gym Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday this week.

3. Stick to my Meal Plan Perfectly (for seven days)

I can already tell you this will be the hardest part of my weekly goals. I’m marking papers from now until mid-June, and this is always when my diet wobbles each semester. MY meals remain consistent, but I convince myself that in order to get through my marking, my only option is to gorge on chocolate and other snacks that are high in sugar and fat.

I’m going to try to break this trend this week. My marking isn’t going away any time soon, so I need to master my ability to work without over-indulging. If I can do this, I’ll be a very happy man come Sunday.

4. Sleep a LOT

This possibly seems like the stupidest goal to write down, but if I don’t treat this as a goal, I won’t take it seriously. I really need to get loads of sleep all round: for muscle recovery, for making sure I’m fresh enough to attend the #5amwritersclub, and for generally being chipper enough to get through the day.

My rough bedtime will be 10-10:30pm, which will give me enough rest to wake up at 5am each morning.

5. Don’t Burn Out Again

I feel like I’ve written a lot on this topic before: either when I’m in the process of burning out, or when I make the miraculous discovery that stopping actually feels good.

The point is: I’m now hyper-aware of my tendency to burn out, and I’ll be watching for the signs this week to ensure I don’t.

replace-burnout

6. Write a Blog Post

This may seem redundant, since I’ve already written one blog post for this week, and this is my second. But my writer pal on Twitter, Richard, suggested to me that I make a goal that was easily achievable in this list, so I can celebrate when I achieve it.

So, here’s my easy goal, and it’s not dodgy, since I genuinely do aim to write one blog post per week. I’ve aimed to do this, and I’ve achieved it, so that’s one goal off the list already. Cheers, Richard, you mad genius!

7. LIVE, DAMN YOU, LIVE!

I solemnly swear to keep my weekend free of either day job or writing commitments. The weekend is for me to have a goddamn life and stop being such a all-work-and-no-play dull boy!

So, on the weekend I’ll be aiming to do whatever the fuck I want, and I won’t quantify it or measure it here other than to say it will not be work in any form. Maybe I’ll ride a seal or hunt a snowboarder. Who knows. I will be structureless and commitmentless for two whole days and I will enjoy the fuck out of it, thank you very much.

I’ll check in next week to report back on how I went with my ambitious goals.

Holden

 

You Lose. Continue?

When the wheels fall off my life, I like to use it as a chance to reassess what I’m doing.

And this last couple of weeks, the wheels did kinda fall off. I’m talking action-movie style, tyres spinning off into burning alleyways while the metal underbelly of the cab churned against bitumen, rose-gold sparks spraying into the air until I crashed into a truck and burst into flames.

I did it again, didn’t I? I over-inflated an innocent metaphor and killed the poor bastard. Well, fuck it. As a writer, I reserve the right to make a mountain out of sawdust.

Anyway, the whole life unravelling thing pissed me off all the more because I’d made a great start to April. In terms of writing productivity, I was more productive than at any time in my career, with the probable exception of my NaNoWriMo efforts. It’s all thanks to my involvement in the Perth troupe (band? auxiliary? battalion?) of the #5amwritersclub. A bunch of us from across WA check in with each other on Twitter at 5am, churn out some writing and by 7am or so, we’re done. We keep each other accountable, get work done, and foster friendships by communicating solely through monosyllabic grunts, GIFs and references to how much we hate being awake at 5am.

everything is awesome
The official theme song to the #5amwritersclub.

Although I was initially kind of coerced into it, joining the club is one of the best decisions I’ve made for my writing career. Since joining in March, I’ve already used my early starts to complete three short story drafts: one called SECURITY, about a security guard (defo need a better title); one called MOONLIGHT (which has a title I love); and one based on my career as a banker, which I am not going to name yet for a couple of reasons.

Not only does developing a regular, early-morning writing practice boost my productivity, it also helps me start each day with a sense of achievement. I can get ready for work in the knowledge that I’ve already done my creative writing for the day, and I don’t need to stress about fitting it in when I get home all exhausted from my hellish day that nobody could possibly understand  fairly cushy university job.

But because writing in the #5amwritersclub makes my day, and my week, so much brighter, it wields the power of a double-edged sword – much like the kind Mickey Rourke tried to kill me with. (Sorry, I’m a hardcore 30 Rock fan and can’t write the words “double-edged sword” without making that reference.)

double edged sword
Gets me every time.

The point is – if I make it to the #5amwritersclub, I’m all pumped for the day. If I miss it, I’m back in Hulk Smash mode.

And so for the past couple of weeks, when I was staying up too late and overtired from work and marking papers, I began to struggle to wake up at 5am at all. Even 6am became impossible. I faltered. I was waking up more tired than when I went to bed, and I barely appeared at the morning roll call. And then last week I pretty much threw it in entirely and gave up.

Then it flowed on to everything: my eating (my meals were fine, but I snacked a lot while marking … helloooo Lindt dark chocolate), my exercise schedule (I only did two and a half workouts instead of four), my sleep (don’t have to be up at 5am? browse the Internet until you pass out!) and my overall wellbeing (I became overwhelmed and overstimulated by even the slightest things).

I even went to write a blog post about how I was failing at everything, and then I couldn’t even make the time for that. It sat there for days with nothing but a vague title that I later deleted.

Yes, I literally failed at writing about how I was failing.

I pushed all my writing tasks and the things I wanted to do back further and further, until they were looming over my weekend, and then I got sick. I left work on Friday with a sore throat, checked in the mirror to see lumps of pus the size of Ukraine on my tonsils, and called it a week. I flopped on the couch after work, and when I woke up I was dizzy and exhausted.

tired af
Failure can be so exhausting.

I spent most of Saturday in bed, steamrollered, and that was the point at which I stopped trying to make my week less of a failure. You know what? It just was. The whole week sucked. I sucked. Everything sucked.

Oddly, once I just accepted that, it became a lot easier for me to bear.

I have such a resistance to failure. Maybe it’s my own overachiever personality, or maybe the way society generally encourages us not to associate with failure (because who wants to be a loser?), but I really resist accepting when I’m beat.

But I think, sometimes, it’s okay to acknowledge that your week, or month, didn’t go the way you planned. You didn’t get everything done that you wanted to get done. Goals and deadlines went unmet. Perfection was not attained.

You failed.

And I’m learning that failure does not kill you; resisting it does.

And treating a one-off failure as a permanent state of being can paralyse you.

So, I’m going to try to view my failed week in the same way I view my successful weeks. That is, having a whole week of failure as a writer, just like having a whole week of success, is:

  • temporary
  • part of the process
  • normal
  • acceptable
  • survivable
  • not a permanent state of being
  • does not mean next week will necessarily be the same
  • not indicative of my value as an author
  • not indicative of my value as a homo sapien

In the fighting video game Tekken (or at least, in the 90s era Tekken 2), losing a fight resulted in the game announcing in a sinister, almost mocking voice:

“YOU LOSE.”

But it was never GAME OVER immediately. The game always gave you a choice to continue. You could go on fighting, maybe learn from your defeat, modify your technique and come back again with a win, or you could give up and choose game over. The choice always remained with the player.

michelle tekken
Come on, Michelle! GET UP! Ganryu won’t uppercut himself.

Having a shitty week is a gift in a way, because it gives me a choice: I could accept my bad week as game over, or I could spam the X button to continue the game and try again.

And the vigour with which I hit that X button tells me everything I need to know about myself. That I don’t need to worry about failures and setbacks, as long as I get back up, brush myself off and try one more time to defeat Kazuya.

So, I spent Sunday night reassessing, and making new goals for the week ahead, and here I am at #5amwritersclub, writing a new blog post. That’s one goal down.

It’s a new day, and a new week lies ahead, spread out like a dewy valley, untrammelled by either my boots or my neurosis. Anything can happen if I make it happen.

So, I’m back in the saddle and ready to get some shit done, but I think failure deserves three cheers for getting me back here.

Holden

The Most Terrifying Question in the World

Few questions strike horror into the heart of an author more than The Question That Must Not Be Named.

Ah, stuff it, I’ll risk the anguished shrieks of any authors reading this. The question is:

“What are you working on right now?”

Sounds innocuous enough, right? Don’t be fooled. This little rose of a question is studded with teeny tiny thorns that will draw droplets of fresh scarlet blood from our fragile author egos.

The reason it’s verboten is because half the time when we’re asked this, we’ve just finished a day, or a week, or a month of staring fruitlessly at a blank screen.

Or, sometimes worse, we’ve spent a long day poring over our current manuscript and have just decided it’s no longer a masterpiece novel, but the biggest, steamiest turd in the multiverse.

And sometimes, even the friendliest person asking us about our progress can feel a bit like Stewie from Family Guy passive-aggressively needling Brian about how long his novel is taking to write (AKA one of my favourite scenes of all time).

stewie brian
Stewie: How you, uh, coming on that novel you’re working on? Working on that for quite some time, huh? Talking about that three years ago, huh? You been working on that the whole time?

The upshot is that authors are sometimes just too writing-weary, depressed, agitated or just plain gutted to explain ourselves to inquiring friends, family and followers. Maybe we feel guilty about not working faster, or not having done more with our time. For the more paranoid among us, it sometimes feels like the inquirer has just noticed our total silence on the writing front, and has thought it felicitous to ask why our writing career seems to be flopping around like a dying fish at the bottom of an angler’s bucket.

So, depending on how our day is going, there is a decent chance that we would prefer to emit a whale-like groan, dramatically rend our garments and run naked through a plate glass window than actually answer this question in public.

For me, my response to this question lately has depended on how my day is going and how much detail I want to go into in that given moment. Depending on who’s asking, and how much they know of my work and my journey so far, I’ve been alternating between describing my current work-in-progress as either my “second” or my “third” novel.

However, if I’m in a rush or on my feet – say, at a book launch or a festival or a  networking event, or caught in a conversation in a corridor somewhere – I will get a bit thrown and end up splicing both versions of the tale together and hoping it makes sense. This results in me blurting out highly unintelligent stuff like:

“Yeah, it’s kinda my second novel but kinda my third novel as well. Have you tried the spinach and feta mini-quiches? They’re heaps good.”

The reactions I get to that range on a spectrum from polite chuckle to blank, querying stare all the way through to the this-bloke-is-clearly-a-bit-tapped eyebrow raise.

When I responded in a similarly confusing way to a fellow Twitter author from Switzerland recently, she said it sounded like there was a story behind the whole second-slash-third novel debacle. It was only then that it occurred to me how confusing this must sound to other people, and how confused it must make me sound.

So, I thought I’d use this post to clarify where I’m at right now, and hopefully the next time I say something about this on social media, or to a friend at an event, or to my pillow as I sob myself to sleep *cough* it will make a bit more sense.

Novel #1: SWORDY MCSWORDFACE 

My first real, honest-to-goodness book is a Young Adult Fantasy novel, full of adventure and magic and a bit of teen angst. I don’t want to share the working title publicly yet, so let’s refer to this one as Swordy McSwordface. I wrote it primarily between November 2014 and January 2017, and had an excellent mentor and editor from the Australian Society of Authors to help me whip it into shape.

Although external editors and agents found the writing of this novel solid, and the plot makes for a really fun, adrenaline-fuelled ride, it wasn’t met with rapturous applause from the agents and publishers I subbed it to. Upon reflection at the time, I ultimately found it wasn’t compelling enough in its current form. So, just over a year ago, I put this novel in the metaphorical drawer, and I’ll tackle it again one day when I’m clearer on what it’s missing.

20180405_101347_resized
This is Novel #1 – dust-coated, but not forgotten.

This novel is the crux of why my explanations of what I’m currently working on have been so convoluted lately. I felt that, since this novel had initially failed to get the attention of any publishers, it was a failed book and it was better to strike it from the record.

But as my Swiss friend aptly pointed out:

“You should definitely be counting novel 1 – just because it’s not published doesn’t make it any less of an achievement.”

I have to agree with this approach. I poured my blood, sweat, tears into this novel, not to mention bucketloads of caffeine, nicotine and swear words. And because of my imagination and my hard work, the novel now exists. It’s a real thing. This matters, because even if it never finds a home, this story was, and is, and always will be, my very first novel.

In fact, I’ve discovered it’s actually not uncommon for authors to land their debut publishing contracts with their second or third (or later) novel, not necessarily the first one they finished.

So, from today, I’m going to put more stock in it, and give this tale the respect it deserves. It will always be referred to as my first novel. It just probably won’t be my first published novel, but I am okay with that. There’s more work to be done, and I trust that I’ll return to this story – either to rework it as a novel, or pick over its bony carcass, vulture-style, for any valuable metaphors that could be torn from its pages and re-planted in a different book.

In any case, I’m no less proud of this novel than anything else I’ve written, and I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist anymore.

Novel #2: INVISIBLE BOYS

My most recently completed novel is the contemporary YA novel, Invisible Boys. After Swordy McSwordface went back in the drawer, I challenged myself to write something utterly real and unflinching, and so I wrote a fictional novel about some gay teenage boys.

And thus, Invisible Boys was born. And it was, hands down, the hardest thing I’ve ever written – at least in terms of content.

But with regards to the mechanics of writing, Invisible Boys was the easiest thing I’ve ever produced in that the whole story just kind of fell out of me fully-formed. I started the first draft in February 2017, and by December 2017 I had a third draft sent to my agent, who had signed me on the strength of the second draft.

Invisible Boys is the only novel that people have heard me talk about. This is probably cause it’s my only full-length manuscript so far to get some external attention: it won the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award and was Highly Commended in the ASA’s 2018 Emerging Writers Mentorship Prize.

I’m so pumped for this book to find a home, not least because having this story and these characters’ voices heard matters to me more than almost anything in the universe.

Novel #3: THE NOVEL THAT MUST NOT BE NAMED

I couldn’t even give you a fake working title for this one yet. It’s too new and I’m still feeling my way on where it will go, so I don’t want to say anything at this stage, other than to admit that a tentative draft has begun.

But that, at least, is progress, because until today, I would have faltered and flailed trying to work out how to present my current work-in-progress.

I know better now, and the next time you catch me hoovering mini-quiches into my gob at a book launch, I’ll be able to tell you, with confidence, “I’m currently working on my third novel.”

Without the awkward over-explaining I always do.

And, hopefully, without giving a whale-moan, flaying myself alive and careening through a plate of solid glass.

Holden