Book review: The Family String by Denise Picton

Tuesday, May 31, 2022 Permalink

I LOVE books written from a child’s point-of-view. It can be hard for writers to nail the voice without it sounding contrived, but if it’s done well it offers an opportunity for a story to be delivered without much of the nuance we usually get from a narrator who – whether they mean to or not – adds a layer of subjectivity.

Some of my favourite books are those ‘told’ by children, such as Lost & Found by Brooke Davis, Allegra in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel, The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna, The Yellow House by Emily O’Grady,  Room by Emma Donahue, as well as everything I’ve read by Favel Parrett. And (not-so-coincidentally) I notice the media release for this references the two books first on my list.

The events of The Family String by Denise Picton are relayed to us by not-always adorable though desperately likeable, 12 year old Dorcas.

Book review: The Family String by Denise PictonThe Family String
by Denise Picton
Published by Ultimo Press
on 01/06/2022
Source: Ultimo Press
Genres: General Fiction
ISBN: 9781761150661
Pages: 352

Meet Dorcas, a spirited 12-year-old struggling to contain her irrepressible humour and naughty streak in a family of Christadelphians in 1960s Adelaide. She is her mother’s least favourite child and always at the bottom of the order on the family’s string of beads that she and her younger siblings Ruthy and Caleb reorder according to their mother’s ever-changing moods.

Dorcas, an aspiring vet, dreams of having a dog, or failing that, a guinea pig named Thruppence. Ruthy wants to attend writing school, and Caleb wants to play footy with the local team. But Christadelphians aren’t allowed to be ‘of the world’ and when their older brother Daniel is exiled to door knock and spread the good word in New South Wales after being caught making out with Esther Dawlish at youth camp, each try their hardest to suppress their dreams for a bigger life. But for a girl like Dorcas, dreams have a habit of surfacing at the most inopportune moments, and as she strives to be the daughter her mother desires, a chain of mishaps lead to a tragedy no one could have foreseen.

I worry when writing reviews for books I adore in case I’m not able to convey how much I loved them in a way that is convincing and impassioned rather than just gratuitously gushing. I sobbed – in what I can only describe as a violent manner – when I first read this book. And even when redrafting this review (a week or so later) I emerged scathed with red-rimmed eyes and a blotchy face.

Picton gives us very clear pictures of each of the characters from the outset. We meet Dorcas and her two younger siblings (Ruthy and Caleb), and we quickly learn what we need to know about her parents. On the surface anyway. In that unabashed way kids have of relaying facts with blunt realism and surprising insight.

The kids hang (hide) out in a treehouse and in the treehouse they have a piece of string with beads on it, each representing a member of the family. The three kids jointly decide daily (or more often perhaps) where on the string the beads lie. Unfortunately for Dorcas she is always at the bottom and sometimes – the distance from her parents (or very specifically her mother) has her wallowing in remorse.

It has to be said however that Dorcas is a delight. She ponders her position on the family string often and is conscious that her own actions often place her at the bottom. She sometimes finds herself acting in ways she know will annoy others but is often unable to help herself. She’s self aware and emotionally astute but also… socially inept.

I loved the comfort she gets from a neighbouring hamster Sixpence and their widowed next door neighbour. And I appreciated the balance the extra-familial relationships offer here.

I adored everything about Dorcas’s story. But it’s a sad story and Picton delivers it brilliantly in the complicated context of religion and strident beliefs. It’s her father we learn who was born into the Christadelphian faith, even though – in many ways – he is the more moderate of her parents.

It’s really hard as an observer not to feel extreme sympathy and empathy for Dorcas; watching from outside but being unable to intervene. Picton does an amazing job of ensuring we care and when we think things can’t possibly get any worse for Dorcas they do. And it’s devastating to watch and – be embroiled in.

I liked that Picton gives Dorcas’s siblings talents that she doesn’t have. I liked that she’s average, astoundingly ordinary… not book-smart but sassy. And wonderfully irreverent.

I was furious with Caleb all the way to school and made him cry, but I didn’t care. I told him he was a stupid little boy who had no idea how families worked, and because he’d told Dad Mum hit me, I probably wouldn’t get Sixpence, and he wouldn’t get to go to football and Ruthy wouldn’t get to go to the writing class. I called him a flat-nosed rude, double bum, snot-nosed six-toes, and further selections from our swearing list. Caleb said, ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me,’ but I told him that was only true in the last century and that the rules changed along with the introduction of decimal currency in 1966 and now names could actually puncture your lungs and make your poo turn to cement in your bowels and never come out and if you didn’t poo, you died. I told him if it was between Mum and me, Dad would choose Mum and I would probably have to go to live in the children’s home now and they would never see me again. I said Daniel would be very upset when he found out that Caleb was the reason I was now an orphan, and Ruthy said I couldn’t be an orphan if I had parents and to leave him alone. pp 115-116*

There’s a lot of family turmoil brewing beneath the surface here and when it explodes it does it in style.

I mentioned before that you think you get to a point where you think your heart has broken as much as it can possibly break…. but then things get worse. Again and again. I cried big ugly tears…. (So much so at one point that I spilled red wine all over the pages!)

This is a beautifully written book. It rushed a little to a conclusion for me after spending so long on the nuances of the family relationships (the string), which meant I didn’t feel as comforted (on its conclusion) as I would have liked. Though perhaps I forgive less easily. But Picton gives us wonderfully complex characters – some sympathetic, some not. She pitches Dorcas’s voice perfectly – she sees what’s happening around her and knows that it’s not right but doesn’t know how to make it so.

I very rarely (once or twice a year – maybe) give a book five stars but this certainly deserves it. It’s a book (its story and characters) I won’t forget in a hurry… and perhaps Dorcas will stay with me forever.

The Family String by Denise Picton will be published today (1 June 2022) by Ultimo Press.

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.

* This quote is from an early review copy and may change before the final copy is released.


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