Friday 26 May 2023

The Sirens Sing - Kristel Thornell (2022)


Rating: Admirable

The Sirens Sing is a novel in two parts, beginning in the locality of Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, between 1991-93. The second section is set in the 1960s – 1970s, in Sydney’s west. The two sections are connected by two characters, Jan and her son David. David features as a teenager in the first section and in the second section we see Jan’s life as a young adult grappling with growing up during times of generational and political change. The first section is the strongest, with well written relatable teenage characters who are on the cusp of leaving high-school and venturing into the adult world. David and Heather are two awkward teens who don’t really fit in, but they find each other and begin what could be a great friendship and romance. Heather’s friend, the troubled Robbie, is a budding artist. The three enter the orbit of an Italian language teacher, Ada, and by the end things end up going off the rails quite tragically. Thornell evokes a strong sense of place with considerable skill, which adds to the effectiveness of the first section.

Unfortunately, the second section is where things go awry. After genuinely connecting with the characters in the first section we are taken completely away from them and, apart from some hints about what happened after, the reader is left to wonder. Jan, although otherwise nicely fleshed out, is weakened as a character due to Thornell’s tendency to overemphasise her lack of confidence and self-consciousness about her upbringing. Jan gets drawn into a friendship with with a fellow student, Alicia, meeting her at university during an awkward interaction with a snobby male student. Alicia lives with her hippy poet older boyfriend and they have a polyamorous lifestyle. Jan and her partner fit awkwardly into this bohemian world and then, you guessed it, due to a series of events things end up going tragically wrong. There’s plenty of juicy themes throughout the novel – class, relationships, politics and repression, however a few key flaws weaken their effectiveness. The impact of some key scenes are weakened by nebulous descriptions, in particular during the climax of the second section, which needs to be read several times to work out exactly what’s going on. The fact that the two sections are not chronologically linked is unfortunate, as it breaks up the generational links between the characters and their circumstances. Such criticisms were shared by most of the thirty book club members who came to the sessions to discuss The Sirens Sing. They really wanted to rate the novel higher, but were frustrated by its flaws, which tended to overshadow its attributes. I've rated the novel as Admirable, but it came close to a Mediocre rating, saved by the fact that I’ve read novels far more flawed than this contemporary Australian novel.

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