Book review: The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan

Saturday, January 6, 2018 Permalink

I’m not sure what it is about Western Australia, but for a not-terribly-densely-populated state in Oz, it seems to punch above its weight when it comes to producing quality authors.

Although I should mention that Louise Allan’s actually an ex-Tasmanian and former doctor and has published a range of articles, essays and short stories before this debut novel, The Sisters’ Song.  (And yes… for the grammar nazis out there it IS meant to be a possessive plural! And yes, it takes one to know one etc etc…) 

Book review: The Sisters’ Song by Louise AllanThe Sisters' Song
by Louise Allan
Published by Allen & Unwin
on January 1st 2018
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Women's Fiction
ISBN: 9781760296315
Pages: 288

"There are some women not meant to have children, and there are others born to do nothing else." Ida Bushell 1947

As children, Ida loves looking after her younger sister, Nora, but when their beloved father dies in 1927, everything changes. The two girls move in with their grandmother who is particularly encouraging of Nora's musical talent. In Nora, she sees herself, the artist she was never allowed to be. As Nora follows her dream of a brilliant musical career, Ida takes a job as a nanny and their lives become quite separate.

The two sisters are reunited as Nora's life takes an unwelcome direction and she finds herself isolated in the Tasmanian bush saddled with a husband and children. Embittered and resentful about her lost chances, Nora welcomes Ida's help with her chaotic household. When Ida marries Len, a reliable and good man, she hopes her dreams of a family of her own will be fulfilled. Unfortunately it becomes clear that this is never likely to happen. In Ida's eyes, Nora possesses everything in life that could possibly matter yet she values none of it.

Set in rural Tasmania over a span of seventy years, the strengths and flaws of motherhood are revealed through the mercurial relationship of these two very different sisters, Ida and Nora. The Sisters' Song speaks of dreams, children and family, all entwined with a musical thread that binds them together.

This book centres around Ida and Nora as adults, but in reality their relationship and the roles they assume are very much shaped during their childhood, and Allan gives us snippets of that world at pivotal moments.

The girls’ mother – already prone to ‘moods’ – struggles after her husband’s death and the girls are sent to live with their grandmother. Thankfully Allan isn’t tempted by the nasty grandmother stereotype. Indeed, although their father’s mother fosters Nora’s musical talent (her own having been shelved when young) she offers both girls a loving and supportive environment. It’s not until the girls’ mother returns that Ida finds herself pushed aside and her mother’s assumption of Ida’s jealousy of her Nora’s talent becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts; and the sisters – once close – become estranged.

Both girls are surprisingly intuitive as children but Nora seems to be able to read her mother better than Ida who doesn’t know when to stop pushing. The older sibling yearns for them to become a family again and it’s something that continues to drive her years later.

The blurb and introduction make it kinda obvious then that Ida’s not going to have that wish granted and (in many ways) it’s Nora who ends up living Ida’s dreams – despite Nora’s antipathy towards HAVING to go down that path.

I’ve talked before about my own attempts at motherhood in my 40s and could very much understand the (often illogical and uncharacteristic) resentfulness one has towards others who take motherhood for granted or for whom it comes so easily. Worse still, when parents squander their opportunities or are don’t appreciate what they have. Of course, I do realise the grass is always greener – which is most certainly the case for the sisters.

Again Allan doesn’t fall into the trap of taking the easy way out. In the middle of the book I did assume there’d be a ‘happily ever after’ for Ida – at least for a time – which would solve all of their problems. And in a fictional world that so often happens. But here – as in life I guess – Nora, in particular, has to live with her decisions and her mistakes and they continue to plague her for years to come.

Ida’s an engaging character and it’s easy to be on her side and frustrated with her sister who sometimes seems so selfishly single-minded. (Though I’m possibly a tad biased in that respect!)

The underlying theme is one of thwarted dreams, yearning and passion, all swaddled amidst the narrative of this book. It’s a reminder that for many those dreams are fame, fortune or accolades, for others it’s motherhood or ‘family’. And for everyone there seems to be a desire to be needed or have a sense of purpose.

This book would be ideal for bookclubs, giving readers an opportunity to talk about the sisters and some may identify more with one sister than the other. And then there’s the evolution of both characters… I wondered how much of who they become is a result of ageing and the acquiescence that often comes with the passing years; or if some of the events of the novel really do cause our characters to change.

There is also an interesting discussion to be had around the girls’ mother and the legacy she’s left her daughters and how that could possibly be passed onto the next generation.

I should mention there’s also a sense of sadness and loss, of regret and forgiveness in this bewitching debut novel.

The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.

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


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