The greatest praise I can give this novel is that at times I felt like I was reading Tim Winton.
If you are a fan of Tim Winton, Aussie family dramas, and characters that feel like they walked out of Cloud Street, then you will love this novel.
Allegra is a six-year-old catholic girl being raised by her two grandmothers. Allegra informs the reader that she has the ability to split herself in two. Not physically, but two different personalities. This splitting is more of a necessity than a frivolous ability and the reason she needs to do this is her grandmothers.
Both of her grandmothers love her dearly and that love is reciprocated by Allegra. The problem is that Matilde and Joy, the two grandmothers, who live right next door to each other, will not even speak to each other.
Firstly, you could not find two more different women if you tried. Matilde is practical. She works as a seamstress from home scrimping and saving every red cent to enable Allegra to go on and become the doctor that Matilde wants her to be. Her garden is all vegetables, every different variety being used nothing is wasted.
Next door Joy, very aptly named, instead of practical and spartan, is emotional and spiritual. Heads to Matilde’s tails. No vegetables in her garden, it overflows with a myriad of flowers, colours bursting forth everywhere. She collects her tears, and she cries a lot, in bottles and then dates and labels them. Allegra loves to listen to Joy tell her the story of each bottle even though she has heard them all many times. The sound of the wind chimes hanging from Joy’s frangipani tree warms Allegra’s heart, that is until Matilde hears them and promptly shuts all the windows.
Matilde is a Jew who has survived the holocaust, set in her ways, forged from a different era. Joy is a modern feminist fighting for women’s rights and trying to set up a refuge for victims of domestic abuse.
However, there is something more sinister hiding away beneath the surface of these obvious differences and both grandmothers are determined to let this something remain hidden and continue along in the odd lifestyle they have created.
Allegra’s father, Rick, lives with her and Matilde in a flat above the garage and seems content with the situation as well. He is almost a ghost in Allegra’s life, working as a carpenter, surfing and betting on the horses.
All three of them love Allegra immensely, and yet they don’t seem to realise the danger they are inflicting on her young impressionable mind. A mind that is fragile and still developing. Allegra, just about every day of her life, is torn between them. Fighting each day to try to keep both grandmothers happy, increasingly blaming herself for the rift.
From the first chapter we are shown how deeply Allegra loves both grandmothers. While reciting a prayer to her school assembly she watches both women sitting distant from each other.
“Making Joy focused makes me feel alive”, Allegra thinks as she notices Joy concentrate on her prayer.
“Making Matilde exhale makes me calm”, she thinks as her glance slides over to her other grandmother.
When Allegra finds out that she must choose a sponsor for her confirmation, and that she may only choose one person, she becomes distressed, torn between her two grandmothers, knowing that choosing one will hurt the other. However, when she finds out that Matilde is Jewish, and Joy catholic, the decision is taken out of her hands. Joy is overjoyed but Allegra is sad, once again torn in half.
“Usually when I make Joy happy the right side of my heart pumps little pulses of thinned blood to my head, sharpening colour and sweetening sound. But today, even though Joy is tickled pink, I know that Matilde is bruised blue, and the left side of my heart is pumping hardened blood to the back of my throat. All colour seems muddier, and sound seems duller. I realise something for the first time, the way you can at eleven and three quarters when suddenly you feel twenty-two. Joy and Matilde make up my right and left side. But now I’ve put them out of balance, and I don’t know how I can feel right again when I’m leaving one of them feeling wronged.”
It doesn’t take the reader long to work out that the whole problem revolving around this little family is Allegra’s missing mother, but what is the secret that the three of them are keeping from Allegra and will they come to their senses and tell her everything before it is too late.
Daniel has breathed life into a simply amazing character with young Allegra and spending the novel in her mind and viewing the world from her eyes is an absolute joy!
I may be a little bit biased being an old surfer and the beach is my favourite place on the planet, but I think this book is a cracker! 5 Stars!
Suzanne Daniel is a journalist and communications consultant who has worked for ABC TV, THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, The United Nations, BBC London and in crisis management and social services. She holds a Bachelor of Communication and Masters of Journalism and was awarded a Vincent Fairfax Fellowshiop for ethical leadership. For the past twenty years she has served on community, philanthropic and pulic company boards. Suzanne lives in Sydney with her husband and family. This is her first novel and hopefully there will be plenty more.
There is an interview with Suzanne answering ten questions at Booktopia here - https://www.booktopia.com.au/blog/2019/05/28/suzanne-daniel-ten-terrifying-questions/