Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, born in 1879 in backwoods Talbingo, famously defied restrictive patriarchal, familial and social expectations to become a pioneering feminist, iconic author and posthumous founder of Australia’s most prestigious literary prize. Those expectations included that she would marry, have children and cease being a disobedient, provocative, self-centred pain in the arse – qualities shared by the rebellious Sybylla, the protagonist of Franklin’s breakthrough novel My Brilliant Career, which thinly fictionalised the story of her childhood. If she is easily recognisable as Sybylla, Franklin’s real-life sister Linda is clearly the basis for the pretty and obedient Gertie.
In her virtuosic novel My Brilliant Sister, Amy Brown turns the stories of this mirror-pair of sisters into a kind of metaphoric Rubik’s Cube, twisting fact and fiction into new forms and configurations, realigning perspectives, casting shadows, shedding light, throwing up questions. Does having a room of one’s own mean anything if you still have to tidy all the other rooms in the house? Can a woman have it all, be Stella and Linda, Sybylla and Gertie? Can she ever just be content to be one of the archetypal pair, without sidelong glances and regret? Do women always have to choose between being “comfortably dishonest” and “uncomfortably honest”?
The first of the book’s three sections belongs to Ida, a New Zealander with a PhD and literary ambitions who has put her career on hold so her partner, a man of similar qualifications and dreams, can take up a good position at a university in Melbourne. She teaches My Brilliant Career to high school students there and assumes the burden of doing most of the housework and caring for their young daughter. While her partner locks himself in his study to write his grand opus, she muddles through “a diurnal life governed by bells, traffic, mealtimes, bath times and bedtimes”.
The second part, “Stillwater”, is narrated by a 25-year-old Linda Franklin as she reluctantly travels north to Queensland with her husband and young child. She is weak with the illness that will kill her before the year is out. In her thoughts she addresses Stella with love and anger, revealing the tormented admiration and self-stifling that have defined her own course through life. She ponders her own seemingly essential passivity: “Instead of being passionate, I wanted to be passionate; instead of being a writer, like you, I wanted to be a writer …” And yet, she is manifestly a writer. She is a poet of the domestic, describing “shallow hills like a green unmade bed” and curtains billowing in the warm breeze “like the throat of a frog”.
In the third section, presumably the fiction that Ida finally does write after some awkward negotiations with her partner about her needs and his responsibilities, we meet the New Zealand superstar, Stella, a singer with squillions of fans and followers. Stella has been brought to ground in Aotearoa by a combination of the pandemic and a heart-wrenching crush on a female bass player.
Brown is a poet, and her sensitivity to language, precision of expression and aptitude for metaphor make My Brilliant Sister both a novel of ideas and a joy to read. One of the persistent themes is that of women’s voices: how they are formed, how they are held back, how they are lost and found. In the second section, Linda asks a simple, practical question of her father, something about lunch. He neglects to reply. Thinking of her brothers, Linda mulls over her father’s careless silence: “It was a habit I noticed Norman and Mervyn were acquiring – the delay between a question from their mother, or sister or wife, and their reply, during which I’d wonder whether they’d heard, or not, whether our voices sometimes came out at a frequency beyond the ears of men and boys.”
Stella, the rock star, is the only one sure of her voice – I’d even say “cocksure” with all that implies. When we meet her, however, she is in a creatively fallow period. Oddly, it is her narrative that strikes the only false notes in the novel. In the first two sections, metaphors and rhetorical points appear almost atmospherically, crackling like fallen leaves underfoot, exhaled like steam from a kettle, there for the noticing. In the third section, they clatter like cups slammed on a table, overstating lest they be overlooked. An old friend of Stella’s (a “Linda” with a husband and child) brings out tea for two and announces, unnecessarily, “I’ll be mother.” Stella performs under the stage name “Miles”.
Stella describes her singer self at 16 sounding like “Courtney Love if she were folky, Bob Dylan if he could sing, Marianne Faithfull if she were a teenager, Patti Smith if she were less sincere, PJ Harvey if she were Kiwi, Björk if she were Kiwi – sounding like the start of Miles”. I am stumped by this description: I’m left with no impression at all of Stella the singer, unless she is also Chaka Khan: “I’m every woman.”
Maggie MacKellar once wrote an essay in the Sydney Review of Books about trying to write a novel about Stella and Linda. Linda’s voice arrived easily but when it came to Stella, her words, she says, grew “wooden”. Rereading that, and thinking about My Brilliant Sister, I wonder why it is so seemingly difficult to give fictional voice to the one woman in these intertwined fictional and factual worlds who actually finds her own.
Scribner, 272pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2024 as "My Brilliant Sister".
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