12+ Kristel Thornell's novel, The Sirens Sing (HarperCollins 2022), is divided into two parts.
The first part is set in the NSW Blue Mountains in the mid-1990s and features a lovestruck teenager, David. And the second part relocates the reader to Sydney's Inner West in the mid-1970s and is his mother Jan's love story.
Part I - The Blue Mountains, 1993–1994
In part one, David has a high school crush on Heather. Both are bright students in their final school years and share a love of Italian. And both were raised by struggling single mothers. Yet, despite their shared backgrounds, David cannot express his feelings for Heather.
Complicating matters is Heather's friendship with a brash nineteen-year-old artist, Robbie. And again, David can't find the courage to ask Heather about her relationship with Robbie.
Meanwhile, to help prepare for her high school language exam, Heather organises weekly conversation lessons with a local Italian woman, Ada. And Heather invites David and Robbie to join her.
Ada is "younger and slinkier" than expected and richer. She and her husband, Filippo, have a beautiful house and gardens. And artist Robbie recognises the expensive paintings hanging in their lounge room, including a Brett Whiteley.
Robbie falls for the art and Ada. But unlike David, he expresses his feelings. And on a special night to celebrate Heather's final exam, events unfold that impact all their lives
Part II - The Inner West, 1962–1993
In part two, David's mother, Jan, talks with a therapist about her life as a university student in Glebe in the mid-1970s and growing up in the socio-economically deprived Western Suburbs of Sydney.
Jan focuses the talk on Alicia, who she met in her first year at Sydney University. Alicia lives with a bohemian poet, Steve, in a Glebe terrace house. While Jan and her husband, Glen, are living in a squat.
Alicia doesn't judge Jan by her Western Suburbs' origins. Instead, she calls her Janet, and they drink wine in pubs and have intellectual conversations.
Jan is unhappy with her teenage marriage to Glen. And is drawn to Alicia and the afternoons spent reading novels in her backyard, where "time turns edgeless, transparent". But Jan breaks off her regular visits, uncomfortable with Steve's bohemian advances and confused about her feelings for Alicia.
A chance meeting leads to a group reunion at Blackwattle Bay on the night of Gough Whitlam's dismissal, when as Alicia comments, "It's like we're in a different world now." And after that night, the world is different for all of them.
People and Places
The Sirens Sing is Kristel Thornell's third novel. I read and reviewed her second novel, On the Blue Train (Allen & Unwin 2016), for Writing NSW in 2018 and shared the review on Tall And True.
A novelisation of the eleven days in 1926 when Agatha Christie disappeared, I knew the outcome as I turned to the last chapters of On the Blue Train. But I willed the character Thornell had created to choose a different path. And as I commented in my review, "Allowing the reader to suspend disbelief is surely the gift of a good book."
Through her evocative writing, Thornell achieves the same emotional engagement for the reader with her principal and supporting characters in The Sirens Sing. As a father, I felt protective toward the teenagers in part one and angry with the older married couple for their role in the events that affected all their lives.
Recalling myself as a teenager in the 1970s, I recognised the people and zeitgeist in part two. It was this section of the book that resonated most with me. Jan was only a teenager in the 1970s, but she seems older and wiser than her son, David, in the 1990s. Perhaps it's because the mature-aged Jan is reflecting on her teenage years. (It's how I feel looking back at myself compared to my son as a teenager.)
And as a Sydneysider, Thornell's description of walking the streets of Glebe and other familiar inner city places in the novel felt like visiting old friends.
LOVE WRITING REVIEWS?
Share and showcase your reviews and other writing — fiction and nonfiction — as a Guest Writer on Tall And True.
The Sirens Sing
The Sirens of Greek mythology appear in Homer's The Odyssey and symbolise dangerous temptations.
The intergenerational characters in Thornell's novel hear Sirens singing, succumbing to their temptations with lifelong consequences for all concerned.
Quoting from the HarperCollins media release for the book, "The Sirens Sing explores yearning and desire, how it haunts and shapes us."
And Kristel Thornell has written another novel that will haunt me.
© 2022 Robert Fairhead
N.B. You might like to read another review from November 2021, Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman.
Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story. In 2021, Robert published his first twelve short stories for the Furious Fiction writing competition, Twelve Furious Months, and in 2022, his second collection of Furious Fictions, Twelve More Furious Months. And in 2023, he published an anthology of his microfiction, Tall And True Microfiction.
Besides writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.