The Sisters’ Song…
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.
Themes of motherhood and family obligation play out against a background of musical passion and thwarted dreams in this exquisite debut novel by Western Australian author, Louise Allan. The Sisters’ Song follows the lives of two sisters from childhood through to their twilight years, both of them living lives vastly different to what they had ever hoped for.
The Sisters’ Song is a character driven narrative, told exclusively from the perspective of Ida, the elder sister. It’s testimony to the skill Louise has as a writer that this story was so perfectly balanced, despite us only ever walking in Ida’s shoes. Ida is a faithful narrator, neither demonising others nor martyring herself. Her introspection is frank and often heartbreaking and her interpretation of the motivations of others is always tempered by her inclination to give those she loves the benefit of the doubt. In short, Ida is a beautiful character. I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the story from her perspective. Set against Nora, it’s easy to recognise Ida from the outset as the more deserving sister.
Motherhood is the sun that everything else orbits around in this novel:
“It was dawning on me that not all women were built for childrearing, even if they’d been built for childbearing.”
The irony of a woman who desperately wants children but can’t have them, yet has to watch someone who doesn’t want them have them one after the other, is not a new concept to explore. Yet Louise does so with finesse in The Sisters’ Song. It’s safe to say without spoiling the novel that Nora is an abominable mother, even worse than her own was. Her actions at times were shockingly senseless and she dragged herself through life bitterly resenting her lost opportunities and openly blaming her husband and children for her own poor judgement. There are serious repercussions from Nora’s behaviour, on more than one occasion, but she remains a woman entirely self absorbed with little empathy and scant redemption. I felt this added a layer of authenticity to the story that might have otherwise been challenged if Nora had been less despicable. Sometimes, in life, there are people who are born with a selfish nature; they live out their lives in a selfish manner and die without redemption. Louise has done a stellar job at articulating this. There are indeed reasons that explain Nora’s initial inclinations, but they don’t excuse her behaviour nor warrant the ongoing extent of her destruction.
With Ida, Louise has created the perfect offset to Nora. By no means perfect, Ida is a woman who acts at all times with dignity and honour. She is fiercely loyal, even when that loyalty is not deserved, nor reciprocated. But we see, as the story progresses, just how appreciated Ida is by those who love her and I adored this aspect of the story. Through Ida, Louise shows how consistent kindness and everlasting love can outweigh the biological attachments a child has with its mother. You don’t need to give birth to a child in order to mother them, to be their safe harbour. Novels that explore ideas of motherhood can be tricky little minefields but if crafted well, they can do much to dispel the myth that all women are natural mothers. The Sisters’ Song demonstrates that oftentimes women can be propelled into motherhood against their wishes and instead of falling into the role naturally, they instead have to fight against their instincts to run away. For those women who do have a natural inclination towards being a mother, accepting that all women don’t feel the same way as them is often times too much of a challenge, so a barrier forms, another way that women end up dividing and pitting themselves against each other instead of universally accepting and supporting each other as a community. Mothers can be judgmental creatures, experts within their own right, casting aspersions on women who don’t have children as well as on those who do but don’t necessarily do it well. And what of the mother who has lost her children? Where does she fall into all of this? With two sisters, Louise has explored all of these themes and more, weaving it all through the story in a way that will have you contemplating more than just the two sisters at hand.
Both the setting and the era were richly recreated within the novel. A myriad of little details that gave you a solid sense of time and place. Louise has a sophisticated edge to her narrative that makes for a truly pleasurable reading experience:
“The rain ebbed away and there was no sound except for the crackle of the fire and the gurgle of the stormwater running down the pipes. Then the birdsong came, and the night was wrapped in light, and it was gone.”
Not overly lyrical throughout, but enough to give you a greater appreciation of the story. The supporting characters were all well established and unique. I particularly liked both of the husbands, Len and Alf, two solidly reliable men. They both acted with honour throughout their married lives, and while my heart broke at what Alf endured married to Nora, he still kept on, a devoted husband despite living in a permanent state of bewilderment. Len was a particularly understanding man. His unwavering love for Ida was never more demonstrated than in his acceptance of her insistence that she look after her mother and her sister’s family. I think it’s fair to consider music as a character within this novel. Indeed, it was a physical presence in both Nora’s and her grandmother’s life and in Ida’s by association. Music was something Ida resented though; as a child, her lack of aptitude and talent giving her reason to turn away from the pleasure of even listening. I loved watching Ida reconnect with music on her own terms and then later, witnessing her connection to Nora through music, despite not being able to create it herself.
There is just so much I could continue to say about The Sisters’ Song. It’s an exquisitely moving novel. When I wasn’t weeping, I was busy trying not to weep. But I don’t want to imply that it’s a sad story; on the contrary, there are moments of joy and celebration throughout. It’s deeply poignant though, and gives the reader much opportunity for reflection, which in turn leads to highly emotional encounters. What an achievement for a debut author. Congratulations must be extended to Louise Allan because she’s excelled at crafting a finely tuned and highly engaging novel that captures a slice of our Australian history to perfection.
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Sisters’ Song for review.
Louise Allan is a debut author from Western Australia. This manuscript was awarded a Varuna residential fellowship in 2014 and shortlisted for the City of Fremantle-TAG Hungerford Award. Louise grew up in Tasmania but has since moved to Perth where she lives with her husband, four children and two dogs. She is a former doctor and has a passion for music.