Book review: The Sirens Sing by Kristel Thornell

Saturday, September 17, 2022 Permalink

The Sirens Sing by Kristel Thornell unfolds in two timeframes. Unlike most dual timeline books however, the two aren’t intertwined or shared concurrently. Rather – in the first half of the book, set in 1991-1993, Thornell focuses her attention on David, finishing school and preparing to go to University. For us his story starts when he befriends Heather, a year younger but with whom he shares similar interests and a passion and aptitude for the Italian language. The second half of the book takes us back to 1960s – 1970s during which we spend time with David’s mother Janet (Jan) when she’s David’s age.

Book review: The Sirens Sing by Kristel ThornellThe Sirens Sing
by Kristel Thornell
Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia
on 07/09/2022
Source: Harper Collins
Genres: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 1460762665
Pages: 304

The Blue Mountains, mid-1990s. Heather and David are two young people on the brink of adulthood, drawn together by their study of Italian. David is smitten with Heather, but has no idea how she feels about him. Besides Italian in common, they are both children of struggling single mothers, who raised them in the grungy Inner West of Sydney - share houses, a squat, a Housing Commission flat - before moving to Blackheath. At a festive evening to celebrate Heather's final high-school exam, events take a course that will profoundly change the lives of everyone present.

Sydney, mid-1970s. Jan, the unconfident daughter of working-class parents and the first in her family to go to university, strikes up a friendship with bohemian, assured Alicia. They quickly become close. But one night down by Blackwattle Bay - the night of Gough Whitlam's dismissal - things go awry.

I found myself relating to both David and Jan’s stories – in terms of the setting or timing at least. Which makes sense as I’d fall somewhere in between both (finishing school in the mid 1980s); either way it brought back a lot of memories from my childhood (in the 1970s) and teenage and Uni years in the early-mid1990s.

I was a bit disconcerted that Thornell has the two parts unfolding as if two completely separate stories. Having said that, Jan’s story kinda unfolds in the 1990s (her present) because she’s reflecting on her childhood and teenage years in sessions she’s attending with a therapist.

David’s chapters are written in a reflective way as well. He often speaks from HIS present (I’m not sure when) talking about the formative relationships he had with Heather and her friend Robbie in the early 1990s, but mentions things he’s done since – such as living overseas, marrying and divorcing.

One of the things that frustrated me about this read was the lack of closure in both timelines. I realise it’s because I’m a control freak and need like to know the full story, but both end quite abruptly and we only know that there may be (or is) more to come because we’ve met Jan in the present (though only minimally in David’s story) and future David talks about things-yet-to-happen.

For that reason it didn’t quite work for me. I enjoyed the stories as they unfolded but then was left unsatisfied, awaiting more. (Less so with Jan, because we meet her later.) I’m not quite sure how I would have resolved this. An epilogue would probably wrap things up too swiftly and neatly. I think perhaps I would have started the book with Jan’s story and then moved to David’s. I know that’s more logical (and therefore predictable) but it also would have allowed for David to give us more closure rather than put things on pause to go back in time.

The other thing I struggled with here a little were point-of-view changes. David and Jan are our narrators but we’d often be put into someone else’s mind or switch to understanding what someone else was feeling or observing.

That aside, this brought back some great memories and I liked the way David’s life and that of his mother mirrored each other in some ways. History repeating itself or ‘the sins of the fathers’ or something. Thornell also offers some commentary on politics and reminds us that Australia wasn’t (and still isn’t) a classless society. Growing up in regional Australia, where most of my friends came from blue collar working class families it wasn’t until I moved to the city and went to University that I realised a divide even existed.

The Sirens Sing by Kristel Thornell was published in Australia by Harper Collins and is now available.

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


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