Family relationships can be complicated at the best of times, but the death of a beloved husband and father plummets Alice, a young wife and mother, into a deep depression that has painful consequences for her daughters, Ida and Nora. History repeats when Nora inadvertently becomes a mother herself. No longer able to pursue her dream of singing professionally, Nora becomes miserable and resentful of her new life, and relies on Ida to help raise her children. Ida, on the other hand, wants children more than anything, but multiple miscarriages makes this impossible. Over the span of seventy years, tragic family patterns become apparent. Ultimately however, the cycle is broken by Ida’s niece, Grace. A young, strong-minded woman, she is determined to follow her dream rather than adhere to family pressure and societal expectations.
The Sisters’ Song (a debut novel for author, Louise Allan) is fictional – written in the style of a memoir from Ida’s point of view. Events and emotions are captured and described so honestly and authentically that I was hooked instantly, and totally bought into Ida’s story. Ida’s thoughts and insecurities during the difficult years following her father’s death and mother’s decline broke my heart. She tries constantly to be a good girl, but is always missing the mark. Her self doubt and negative self-talk lead her to believe she doesn’t have a brain for learning – all the while watching Nora’s gift for piano and singing blossom.
While Ida is constantly getting into trouble, Nora comes across as a ‘goody-two-shoes’. But this feels more like a survival instinct (avoiding the worst of their mother’s cruel taunts and punishments) than an annoying personality trait, and is possibly also a result of having her talent nurtured and self-worth reinforced. The nurturing of Nora’s gift by their grandmother (who had to give up on her own dreams) drives a wedge between the sisters, and I emphasised deeply with Ida when she said, ‘I couldn’t make music, I only made noise’.
Ida’s gift is that she is considerate, forgiving and level-headed. Attributes that are fostered when she takes a job as a nanny for the Godfrey-Smiths – one of my favourite parts of the novel. Ida is treasured by the Godfrey-Smiths, and re-lives her interrupted childhood by caring for their young girls. They encourage her to listen to beautiful music and from this, she is able to fully embrace Nora’s talent.
The characterisation throughout the novel is strong and continues to develop right to the end. I particularly liked the character arc of the grandmother, who initially comes across as prim and proper (never to be seen in a nightdress). She softens and becomes more youthful in the presence of Ida and Nora and understands what it’s like to give up something you love. Unlike their mother, she ‘gets’ the young girls. She instills a love of gardening in Ida, growing tiny plants from seed, explaining to Ida that, ‘They need nurturing until they can survive on their own. Just like children.’
The girls’ mother, Alice, is a complex character. You can’t help but sympathise with her mental health issues, especially in an era where there was little understanding of, or tolerance for, depression, and the phrase ‘positive parenting’ was unheard of. Having said that, her behaviour still managed to make me angry at times.
The men central to the story are depicted as good, decent blokes, providing a positive balance to the turbulence of the women’s hardships. Alf and Len brought me to tears more than once – sad scenes written so beautifully and sympathetically that I found myself reaching for the Kleenex.
The book tackles some deep themes, which despite the bygone era it is set in, are still relevant today. Mental health, post-natal depression, child abuse and ‘tough parenting’, repetition of family patterns, and the pressure to give up on dreams are universal topics that continue to devastate individuals and families. At the novel’s heart is family – the one that Ida and Nola are born into, those created by marriage, and those by chance – like the Godfrey-Smiths, raising a pertinent question. Why is it that a woman’s expected role in life is to have children? By exploring what can go wrong when women are coerced or forced into marriage and motherhood, the author deftly makes a point that motherhood is not for everyone. Not having babies, or being unable to care for them, does not make anyone any less of a woman. Some may see Grace’s actions at the end of the novel as selfish, but I think she is a brave woman, unwilling to repeat mistakes of the past, and hopeful for her own future.
For all the heartbreak and sadness in the novel, there is much light. The music woven throughout the book is sublime, and Ida’s reaction to newfangled technology (telephones, television and vacuum cleaners) made me smile. The Godfrey-Smiths were a delight, and Ida’s forgiveness and kindness is inspiring. Beautifully written, with energy flowing strongly in pivotal scenes, the story culminates in an uplifting ending. Ida’s life is brought full-circle, and she is left a very happy woman.
Authentic, engaging and melodious, I loved The Sister’s Song. It celebrates the best and worst of family relationships and I can’t wait to read more from the author, Louise Allan.