Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Those Hamilton Sisters is the first novel produced by mother of four, Averil Kenny. Like most successful first writers, she has written about what she knows. This story is created from many of her own experiences of motherhood, love, family bonds and growing up in the lush-enchanted tropics of Australia giving the story a realness and an enjoyable experience for the reader as they follow the lives of Those Hamilton Sisters.
The reader first meets these girls as they arrive by train at the North Queensland cane town where their mother grew up. Alone now after her death, they are met by their mother’s older sister. The first thing we learn about these girls is that they are all redheads. I hadn’t realised that red hair could present in such different ways. The first, twenty-year-old Sonnet’s hair was ‘richest red, hauled back into an austere bun’. The second, twelve-year-old Fable’s head flowed with ‘strawberry flames striated with gold’ while ‘the burnished auburn curls belonged to three-year-old’ Novella Plum (3). These were the children of Esther who had left the town in shame just over two decades before.
As the new legal guardian of her younger siblings, fiercely independent Sonnet was ‘pinning a nomadic lifetime of hopes on this move north; a clean slate and brand-new life for the Hamilton Sisters’ (19). She was used to looking after the others while her mother’s moods swung from being ‘vivacious and ferociously loving one moment, the very next blankly distant and overwrought (17). She had put her own life on hold to carry out her new role.
As soon as I began reading this story, I was impressed with the author’s writing. From the cleaning job that ‘began with the rooster’s crow at daybreak and ended with the arrival of the bats’ (25) to achieve ‘a home de-roached, de-webbed and de-cluttered ready for the Hamilton girls to claim as their own’ (27) I was captivated.
Life was not going to be easy for the girls who would have to live down their mother’s shame especially for Fable who had Esther’s ‘doe eyes and full lips…long spilling mane…slender limbs and…fine features’ (6). Fable couldn’t escape the aura of small-town celebrity. All eyes, ears and tongues were always on her (228). She was different and the town’s folk had long memories.
Both the older Sonnet and Fable are the focus in this book. The way they are treated and the way they respond. Young Novella is always there in the background but just as a support to her sisters. All three are different, not just in looks but in personality and all cope with small-town curiosity in different ways. They all have reverence for their mother’s memory and miss her dearly. Towards the end of the book, her story is revealed.
This is a story which highlights the various aspects of the human condition in a country town. The girl’s aunt, in a stable marriage, had missed out on nurturing children of her own while her sister had been blessed with three beautiful daughters without the support of a partner. She craved the nurturing role and often found herself at odds with Sonnet.
This is a confronting book in many ways as it highlights the sometimes out-of-control behaviour of adolescence, the unforgiving nature of small-town folks who place all the blame on others rather than those closer to home. It describes graphically the stifling heat and humidity of a north Australian summer as well as the ferocity of cyclones and the recurrent wet. Yet there is also an element of magic surrounding the environment especially as seen by the artist’s eye.
The author’s love of reading and discovering new words is passed onto the reader with words in italics like threnody (128), bloviating (139), inflorescence (147), ombrophobia (170) and crepuscular (206), just to mention a few.
The promise of a clean slate for the Hamilton girls in this small town had not been real and would never come to fruition but they would stand together, support each other, and show their strength. I thoroughly enjoyed this first novel by Averil Kenny and look forward to reading more of her work.
By Averil Kenny