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A collage of Linda and Miles Franklin. Linda is wearing a white blouse. Miles is wearing a hat and is carrying a parasol.

Image: Linda and Miles Franklin. Sources: Wikipedia Commons.

New Zealand-born poet Amy Brown begins her debut novel with lines from Maggie Nelson’s ‘Twinned’. The poem (which can be found in the collection Something Bright, Then Holes) is, in part, about seeing the reflection of things in still water: ‘The world thus / appears as it truly is: / twinned, or twice / as deep and large.’

There are so many mirrors, doubles and shadows in this clever and surprising novel that I would say things are thrice as deep and large. The title suggests this is just a story about Australian novelist and feminist Stella Miles Franklin and her little-known younger sister Ida (known as Linda), but it is really a novel in three parts—a literary triptych—each addressing the challenges of combining an artistic career and family life. Franklin is best known for My Brilliant Career, published in 1901, about a gutsy young woman rejecting traditional roles in rural NSW. Franklin went on to publish sporadically but also support other writers and endow the Miles Franklin Award—an annual literature prize for books about ‘Australian life in any of its phases’. (Franklin’s legacy isn’t without some controversy, as she did attend meetings of the fascist Australia First Movement in 1941—though historian Jill Roe documented her opposition to the organisation’s politics in her 2008 biography.)

There are so many mirrors, doubles and shadows in this clever and surprising novel.

The first section, ‘Ida’, focuses on a New Zealander living in Melbourne between COVID-19 lockdowns, stretched thin from teaching high-school English (online and in-person) and life with her Australian partner and their four-year-old daughter. The family moved from New Zealand for her partner’s academic career. He is a cultural theorist whose favourite novelist is WG Sebald; he reads the Saturday Paper.

This modern Ida used to be an academic as well and would like to write again, but there is no time—she is mired in the domesticity and work balance—trying (and failing) to get it all done. While teaching her Year 11 students Franklin’s most famous novel, she reads Sybylla (the fictional Miles) in My Brilliant Career say of Gertie (the fictional Linda): ‘I am capable of more depths of agony and more exquisite heights in one day than Gertie can experience in her whole life.’ Ida is propelled by Sybylla’s arrogance to discover more about Linda, who married young, had a child and was dead by twenty-five.

The narrator’s own illness (not COVID but pneumonia, the same thing which killed Linda) prompts a re-evaluation of her marriage and work, and recognition of how little her partner chips in. When she tells him this, he replies: ‘Demand more for yourself. Set boundaries. It’s your life.’ From here, I wondered whether things fell into place too easily for Ida: she simply goes on to carve out time to write with no further complications.

The second section, ‘Stillwater’, is a ‘novel in thoughts’ from Linda to her sister Stella, about what it means to be the peacemaker, the agreeable one, and to watch your sister have freedom, literary success and a career. It takes up the subject which Ida planned to write about. Here Brown has given Linda a voice of her own and a personality as distinct as that of her sister:

Sometimes, I believe it is enough merely to live—to dig the vegetable bed, boil the sheets, feed the baby, stew the meat, take pleasure in ice-blue cotton for a summer dress. If I’m content with these activities, what need is there for writing, which stirs the clarity of my thoughts, making them troublingly cloudy? Why not keep the water still and let its silty bed settle? I suppose you’d say knowing the murk is there and yet declaring the water clear is dishonest. Your approach would be to splash about barefoot until you caused its disturbance—your place, not mine.

I wondered whether things fell into place too easily for Ida.

What compels me about Brown’s portrayal of Linda is how much of her acquiescent behaviour is a reaction to her sister’s misbehaviour: Stella throws tantrums and breaks the rules, while Linda sees that there is only so much rebellion her family can manage. She would write as well, she knows the pull of it, what she calls ‘the thrill of shrinking oneself to make room for something new’. It is an engaging portrait—in part from Linda’s depth of questioning, in part from the beauty of the prose.

The third in this triptych is another contemporary section, ‘Stella’, narrated by a singer/songwriter Stella (who goes by Miles, and has just released an album called My Brilliant Career). Stella has returned home to New Zealand during COVID lockdown, a distinct change from her international career spent touring. A bass player, another woman, broke her heart, but she has always chosen her career over other people, other connections.

Stella is self-absorbed and prone to sweeping statements like ‘I want to be catchy rather than caught’. But her own vulnerabilities surface around her own mother and friends with small children, and she questions what she doesn’t have.

She is also adamant in her dedication to her art:

There seem to me two ways of being: one comfortable and dishonest, the other honest and uncomfortable. To be comfortable in the world is a lie—a denial of its discomfort. It is to ignore what hurts you and others in favour of a quiet, perhaps even successful, life […] The uncomfortable way of being is to admit that the world is ill-fitting.

Brown has written a remarkably original novel about what women give up when we reject a conventional life and what we give up when we accept one. There is no answer to the question of whether still water is better than cloudy, but instead the sense that we are always haunted by what we do not have. In the novel’s juxtaposition of women, there are echoes of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet—the relationship between Elena and Lila and the ways that they simultaneously reflect and reject one another. Here the depth exists, not just in the choices we make but the ones we let go. The shadows which follow us. The lives we might have lived.

A remarkably original novel about what women give up.

I was reminded of Ferrante’s response, printed in Frantumaglia, to a reader who asked why her characters are women who are suffering:

What they expected from life—they are women who sought to break with the tradition of their mothers and their grandmothers—does not arrive. Old ghosts arrive instead, the same ones with whom the women of the past had to reckon. The difference is that these women don’t submit to them passively. Instead, they fight, and they cope. They don’t win, but they simply come to an agreement with their own expectations and find new equilibriums. I feel them not as women who are suffering but as women who are struggling.

Brown has captured this struggle in a powerful, memorable debut. I look forward to reading whatever she writes next.

My Brilliant Sister is our Debut Spotlight book for February. Find an interview with author Amy Brown here.

Debut Spotlight is a paid partnership with Australian publishers designed to promote the critical discussion of new authors’ work to a wide audience. Titles are selected by KYD, and all reviews have editorial independence.