The Sisters’ Song (Allen & Unwin)
I’m delighted to introduce Louise Allan as my first 2, 2 and 2 guest for 2018. Louise’s debut novel, The Sisters’ Song, has only been out for a few weeks but it seems to be appearing everywhere—a wonderful, and well-deserved, start to its life.
Louise is well known in the Perth writing community for her engaging, warm-hearted approach to everything she does, and will be familiar to many readers through her popular blogs. But here’s a brief introduction:
Louise grew up in Tasmania, but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her first career was as a doctor, but in 2010 she ceased practising medicine and took up writing.
The manuscript of The Sisters’ Song was shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle–T.A.G. Hungerford Award, and was awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship. Louise has also had short stories, essays and articles published in literary anthologies and medical journals.
Apart from writing, Louise enjoys music, photography, walking and nature.
And here’s the blurb for The Sisters’ Song:
Set in rural Tasmania from the 1920s to the 1990s, The Sisters’ Song traces the lives of two very different sisters. One for whom giving and loving are her most natural qualities and the other who cannot forgive and forget.
As children, Ida loves looking after her younger sister, Nora, but when their beloved father dies in 1926, everything changes. The two girls move in with their grandmother, who is particularly encouraging of Nora’s musical talent. Nora eventually follows her dream of a brilliant musical career, while 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, embittered and resentful, isolated in the Tasmanian bush with a husband and children.
Ida longs passionately for a family and when she marries Len, a reliable and good man, she hopes to soon become a mother. Over time, it becomes clear that this is never likely to happen. In Ida’s eyes, it seems that Nora possesses everything in life that could possibly matter yet she values none of it.
Over a span of seventy years, the strengths and flaws of motherhood are revealed through the mercurial relationship of these two very different sisters. The Sisters’ Song speaks of dreams, children and family, all entwined with a musical thread that binds them together.
Over to Louise…
2 things that inspired my book
1 My grandmother’s history
As a child, I heard about my paternal grandmother’s three stillbirths. After the third one, the doctor told my grandmother that if she ever wanted to birth a live baby, she would need a caesarean.
I’d accepted this story then without thinking too deeply about it. As I grew older, particularly once I became a mother, it struck me how heartbreaking it must have been for my grandmother to nurture a baby in her womb for nine months, only for it to die during delivery. Three times.
One day in 2012, I searched the Launceston cemetery records and found the record of the interment of one of these uncles:
On 22 March 1937, the stillborn baby of Mrs L.D. Allan (she wasn’t even given her own initials but those of my grandfather) was buried in Section D558 of Carr Villa cemetery. Seeing it recorded was bittersweet—I’m glad there’s a record that he existed, but it was also strikingly sad.
On a visit to the cemetery in Launceston, I tried to find his grave, but it’s unmarked.
I incorporated my grandmother’s story into Ida’s story in my novel.
2 Old family photos
I also drew inspiration from photos taken by my paternal grandfather’s family. My grandfather was born in 1906, one of eighteen children from a working-class family. Despite the lack of money, and the relative expense of cameras, film and developing photos in those days, they managed to leave a substantial photographic record of their lives.
I wrote quite a few scenes using the photos as prompts. The opening paragraph comes from this photo. I changed a few details to suit my story, but the essence comes from this photo, including the mention of the cloche hat!
The photo below is how I imagined Ida, Nora and the kids would look. It’s a photo of my paternal grandmother (L), with her sister-in-law and her children.
2 places connected with my book
1 Ben Craeg
Ben Craeg is the name of the mountain I describe in my book. Tasmania has a few mountains called ‘Ben’: Ben Lomond, the highest peak of the Eastern Tiers, and Ben Nevis, where my grandfather once had a sawmill.
When writing the first ever draft of this story, I made up the name Ben Craeg. That version was mainly about Grace, so it’s an anagram of her name, and I thought it sounded very Scottish!
There are mountains wherever you look in Tasmania—it’s not flat and brown like many parts of Australia. Because mountains are referred to as ‘she’, and because they always seem to be quietly watching over the valleys below, to me they have a maternal quality, so I bestowed these qualities on Ben Craeg, in keeping with the themes in my book.
As an aside, I was tickled to see someone had googled ‘Ben Craeg Tasmania’ and ended up on my website. My apologies to that reader for confusing them!
2 Ida’s house
Ida lives in Launceston, Tasmania, and I put her house in the street in which I grew up, although I’ve given the street a different name. The suburb we lived in was built on reclaimed swamp, and whenever a heavy vehicle like a truck or bus drove down our street, the houses shuddered and the glassware in the cabinet clinked. Just as those who live near airports tune out the noise of planes, we were used to the shaking of the floor beneath us and the rattling of the crockery. It unsettled our visitors, though, and I remember explaining to friends that it wasn’t an earthquake, just a truck passing by.
Ida’s house is modelled on my grandparents’ home. It had a front verandah, and I added iron lace and geraniums in boxes. My grandmother cooked with a wood stove, and I remember the copper in their bathroom.
2 interesting parallels
1 ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I read this short story when my daughter studied it in late high school. I’d already written an early draft of my novel, and this story resonated, as it seemed to reflect the themes I was trying to bring out in my novel.
It’s about a young woman’s descent into madness after the birth of her child, and is based on Gilman’s personal experience of post-natal depression, when her husband, a physician, forbade her from working or writing, believing that devoting herself to domestic duties was the key to happiness. Although it was first published in 1892, unfortunately it still resonates today.
Here’s a link to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
2 Dame Nellie Melba
It could be argued that Dame Nellie Melba is still Australia’s most successful expatriate ever. She sang in the opera houses of Europe and America, and was feted the world over.
Melba is mentioned a couple of times in my novel: Ida’s grandmother had been to one of her concerts, and Ida listens to her records on a gramophone when she lives with the Godfrey-Smiths.
I wrote these sections and then researched Melba’s life. I discovered that Melba’s father was against her singing, expecting that she’d marry and have a family. She did marry and have a son, but later divorced, and, at one point, lost custody of her son for ten years.
I saw the parallels between Melba and Nora, the character in my novel: both wanted to dedicate their lives to music rather than family. Imagine if Melba had stayed in Australia and lived a life of domesticity; the world would never have heard her voice. Imagine, too, how many other Melbas have lived and whose voices have never been heard.
I loved this quote about Melba from one of the websites I researched: But hers was not a life dedicated to love; it was a life dedicated to opera.
For more information on Dame Nellie Melba’s life, see here.