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.
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.