REVIEW

Allegra in Three Parts, by Suzanne Daniel, will be admired for its imagination, political intent, and heart

It is becoming increasingly easy and justified - though dispiriting - to conclude that human beings are really quite awful.

The planet's climate is being ruined at an alarming rate; we judge others based on race and religion and whether or not they are "with us or against us"; we still resort to military force; who you love can be the reason you are bashed on public transport; and the male of the species continues to assert its thick-headed control.

Yes, it is depressing.

Thank goodness for literary fiction: for its ability to explore, expose, enlighten, upset, and delight; and for its habit of saying, things are always more complicated than they seem.

While some novels are loaded with importance (sometimes requiring readers to drag themselves through the narrative), others are light, page-turning entertainments.

Then there is the novel that is both, and it is this category in which it is possible to place Allegra in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel.

Author Suzanne Daniel. Picture: Nick Epoff

Author Suzanne Daniel. Picture: Nick Epoff

On the surface, the story is simple: in an Australian city in the 1970s, eleven-year-old Allegra lives with her grandmother Matilde but also spends time with her other grandmother, Joy, who lives next door.

Allegra feels loved by both grandmothers, even though the women refuse to have anything to do with each other.

Then there is Allegra's father, Rick, a keen surfer, who lives in the rear of Matilde's yard. It is an intriguing though rather odd scenario, but, of course, it gives the reader a key question: how has this family ended up like this?

What follows is a series of episodes in which Allegra must sink or swim (in one case, literally). There is schoolyard bullying by the "mean girls", the heartbreak of friendship, and neighbourhood intrigue surrounding an unplanned pregnancy.

Allegra begins to notice that Joy is a political woman, and is open to knowing more. She also observes how Matilde is being impacted by a harsh industrial context: Matilde is a dressmaker who works from home, leaving her open to abuse by the money-hungry. Eventually Allegra will be forced to learn about what happened to her mother, which is a tragic state of affairs indeed.

All that is wrapped in what is, in essence, a quirky novel. Matilde believes the best cooking is done with the assistance of Franz Liszt.

Joy collects her tears in little bottles, of which she has amassed a large collection; she also keeps a small tortoise called Simone de Beauvoir.

The quirkiness is evident in the prose, which is closely informed by Allegra's narration, which, appropriately, is both childlike and has an emerging sophistication: "I'm back in the harbour between Joy's bosoms and my heart loosens a little as I push out a deep breath. Because even though there was another child in Joy's garden today, I am the only one with a berth in her chest, and besides, Joy doesn't have a coloured glass bottle of the tears she shed on the day that Mandy was born, labelled ELATION."

While Allegra in Three Parts is primarily a coming-of-age story - by the end Allegra has reached her teens - it has a political purpose: to document and dramatise the impact of Australia's patriarchal society.

Daniel does this, in part, by pushing her male characters to the periphery; it is no accident that Allegra's father is living in a backyard flat.

The thesis of the novel is stated throughout. This from Joy: "I want you to be able to decide your own course and steer your own ship and be in control of your life. I want you to live in a world where you are empowered to be the very essence of yourself and to live that essence and feel free to express that essence. I want you to have opportunities and to work in fields that excite you and to have your own purse, to achieve financial freedom. To love and be loved, but mostly to be valued as a whole person full of potential."

The resonance of the novel comes from the dynamic between Allegra and her grandmothers, which is wonderfully drawn. Rick has a more significant role to play in the novel's final third, and the scenes in which he teaches Allegra to surf are engagingly alive on the page.

No doubt Allegra in Three Parts will fly off the shelves into book-club living rooms, where it will be admired for its imagination, political intent, and heart.

Should Australia's small cohort of male readers of literary fiction be bothered to give it a go, they, too, will find much to enjoy - some may even be changed.

One can only hope.

And one can be thankful for Suzanne Daniel's writing, which dares us to do exactly that: hope.

  • Nigel Featherstone is the Goulburn-based writer of, most recently, Bodies of Men.
This story Suzanne Daniel's light prose dares us to hope first appeared on The Canberra Times.