The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan

‘It was 1926. Mum was as old as the century and already a widow.’

Spanning a period of seventy years, this is the story of two very different women. As children, the two sisters, Ida and Nora, live with their parents in Tasmania. But in 1926 when Ida is eight and Nora just six, their beloved father dies. With their mother unable to manage, the girls move in with their grandmother where eventually their mother joins them.

The girls grow up. Nora’s musical talent, which has been encouraged by her grandmother (but not by her mother) leads her to a musical career. Ida, more domestically minded in every sense, finds a job as a nanny for a family of doctors in Launceston. Their lives become quite separate.
Some years later, the sisters reconnect. Nora’s musical career has given way to husband and child, and she is in despair. Ida steps in to help, a pattern that will be repeated over the years despite Ida’s marriage to Len. Ida, whose greatest desire is to have children, would love to have the family that Nora seems not to care for.

Two very different women. Two very different paths through life. Nora is confined by the expectations of the time: unable pursue a musical career while raising a family. Nora’s husband Alf is a decent man, but he cannot compete with her dreams, cannot make her happy. Ida, as older sister, takes responsibility for Nora as she did when both were children. Ida’s maternal instincts and sense of duty are directed towards her mother, her sister and her sister’s children.

I loved this novel for two main reasons. Firstly, the setting. Much of the novel is set in Launceston (where I grew up), and it was easy for me to visualise the places and spaces. Secondly, Ms Allan has developed two very different female characters, both caught up in the expectations of the era in which they lived. Ida will survive because of her strength of character and sense of duty, Nora will struggle because she cannot reconcile her dreams with her responsibilities.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith