I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t get the title reference until I was writing this review. It should be obvious, I mean the book opens with our delightful narrator Allegra explaining that her superpower is splitting in two… offering one half of herself to each of her beloved grandmothers, before mentioning her father’s presence, but in my defence I read the book when my brain was weary, so….
Having said that, I did initially take it into the bathtub for a ‘short’ read before organising my dinner and so forth, but was still there until I closed the last page nearly three hours later.
Allegra in Three Parts
by Suzanne Daniel
Published by Macmillan Australia
on May 25th 2019
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
Eleven-year-old Allegra shuttles between her grandmothers who live next door to one another but couldn't be more different.
Matilde works all hours and instils discipline, duty and restraint. She insists that Allegra focus on her studies to become a doctor.
Meanwhile free-spirited Joy is full of colour, possibility and emotion, storing all her tears in little glass bottles. She is riding the second wave of the women's movement in the company of her penny tortoise, Simone de Beauvoir, encouraging Ally to explore broad horizons and live her 'true essence'.
Rick lives in a flat out the back and finds distraction in gambling and solace in surfing. He's trying to be a good parent to Al Pal, while grieving the woman linking them all but whose absence tears them apart.
Allegra is left to orbit these three adult worlds wishing they loved her a little less and liked each other a lot more. Until one day the unspoken tragedy that's created this division explodes within the person they all cherish most.
I love books narrated by kids. Of course, Allegra is no ordinary 11, then 12 year old. She’s seriously smart: thanks predominantly to Matilde who keeps her focused on schoolwork and learning; while Joy encourages whimsy and curiosity in the mostly practical Allegra.
Not only does Allegra’s family not talk to each other, but they don’t talk (to her) about the past. And her family’s secrets mean that in many ways she’s sheltered and not as street-wise as she should and could be. She recognises though, her world is precariously fragile and careful not to do anything to fracture its tenuous structure.
Making Joy focused makes me feel alive….
Making Matilde exhale makes me feel calm. pp 2-3
So many of the novels I read with young protagonists are coming of age (or wisdom) stories of sorts. This didn’t quite feel like that. Sure it’s about Allegra understanding her past and her family but the evolution is more about those around her.
The novel’s set in the 1970s and, through Joy initially, very much about women’s empowerment, equal rights and the feminist movement.
We need to overturn this age-old notion of women being inferior to men. Put an end to this servitude. It’s only through true equality that women will ever be in control of their lives and free of violence. p 156
It’s also about women’s place in society as well as systemic oppression and sadly, domestic violence.
Joy is helping to establish a women’s shelter and an outspoken member of the women’s Liberty Club. And even Matilde, though old-school and practical is forced to take a stand when it comes to employment conditions for herself and other women.
It’s also about the assumptions we make about others and the stereotypes we struggle to let go of. We see it here amongst the children in Allegra’s school and within her own family.
Because of course this book is very about family. And family ties. Allegra’s living in an unusual environment. Her two grandmothers are neighbours and her father lives above the shed of his mother-in-law’s property but none talk to the other. More importantly no one speaks of Allegra’s dead mother and their secrecy means she’s confused about the circumstances of her death.
Of course as adults we can make our own assumptions and understand the fractured relationships but though Allegra’s accepted them, she doesn’t understand them.
Sometimes when I get information from secretly listening in to the adults, it feels as though growing up is not so much about getting taller or smarter or stronger, but about the happy shell of being a kid being chipped away from around me one chink at a time. p 109
Daniel’s writing is beautiful. She nails the voice of the enchanting Allegra and we’re privy to her observances, often understanding far more than our young narrator.
That part of my heart that stores jigsaw pieces in not-sure-where-they-go categories is placing them down now, one piece after another after another. A picture is starting to take shape. p 157
This is a delightful debut novel by Daniel, a former journalist and a community activist herself. She manages to beautifully balance the magical whimsy of childhood with the turbulent and fraught essence of family, of grief, guilt and blame.
And of course as a child of the 70s I could very much relate to the compulsory school milk program and hot stinking bottles of milk we were forced to consume on a daily basis. (Not to mention Tang and compilation cassette tapes with catchy titles!)
This is an emotional, but not overly sentimental read, and certainly a pleasant journey into the (sadly) now-distant past for me.
Allegra in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel will be published in Australia by PanMacmillan on 25 May 2019.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.