The Sisters’ Song shares the enchanting lives of Ida and Nora Parker. From the first page, Allan transports the reader into an idyllic 1920s family, only to have them experience the devastating tragedy that will change this family’s life forever.
Now, with a deceased father and a lunatic for a mother, Ida and Nora are forced to live with their grandmother, at which point Ida discovers the enviable difference between her and her sister. Ida may adore music, but Nora has the gift of music. This volatile jealousy eventually breaches the tender lines of sibling rivalry and ventures into an abyss void of love. Their relationship cracks open, like the faux stability beneath their child-sized feet, creating a crevice seemingly beyond repair and causing the reader to feel the weight of it with them.
Set in rural Tasmania and spanning a lifetime, Ida and Nora’s lives play out in harmony, the low and seemingly jolted bass notes of Ida and the melodious treble clef of Nora’s presumed perfection. Together, they present the song of two very different sisters, their stories woven together with a symphony of memories.
However, once Nora is forced to set aside her musical dreams for the sake of raising her illegitimate child, something snaps. Ida, not content to watch from afar, entwines herself in their lives, desperate to become the maternal figure Nora seems incapable to be.
Nora seems to have it all – the talent, the looks, the adoration, the family. Meanwhile, Ida determines not to allow her own jealousy to swell and force them apart.
In turn, the two sisters grieve for the lives they wished they owned – that of the other.
Nora describes their situation perfectly in her honest confession to Ida: ‘I think God got it muddled… He meant to put my head on your body, and your head on mine… You say you’re jealous of me. Well, sometimes I’m jealous of you… It’s not just freedom. It’s not wanting any of this. Not really. The house, the kids, a husband. None of it. I could get up and walk out of here tomorrow.’
The Sisters’ Song captures the ideals behind maternal instinct and sets them in opposition to another power and another way of life. ‘There are some women not meant to have children, and there are others born to do nothing else’ – Ida Bushell, 1947.
Ida was born to be one such mother, but Nora was born to sing.
In the subtext of every quarrel, Allan reveals her own deep understanding of the complexities within female relationships, particularly that of rival sisterhood. Allan makes us privy to the intriguing history of the sisters and one can’t help but feel like a fly on the wall of a complex household – albeit, an anxious fly, eager to see what happens next, whether it’s elating or shattering.
Any formatting inconsistencies toward the end of the book are swiftly forgiven, as one’s heart is already held by the deeply affecting narrative.
The Sisters’ Song is a poignant novel brimming with relational complexity before reaching its poetic conclusion, resembling that of an imperfect cadence. It’s a novel that reaches inside and touches the heart, leaving its warm fingerprints behind.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Calder
Rating out of 10: 9
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: January 2018