Review & Author Interview: Allegra in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel - A 5-star Australian coming-of-age novel

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Allegra in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel
Released: 28th May 2019
Published by: Pan Macmillan
Genre: Contemporary fiction/coming-of-age
Source: Publisher
Pages: 301
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
I can split myself in two... something I have to do because of Joy and Matilde. They are my grandmothers and I love them both and they totally love me but they can't stand each other. 

Eleven-year-old Allegra shuttles between her grandmothers who live next door to one another but couldn't be more different. Matilde works all hours and instils discipline, duty and restraint. She insists that Allegra focus on her studies to become a doctor. Meanwhile free-spirited Joy is full of colour, possibility and emotion, storing all her tears in little glass bottles.

She is riding the second wave of the women's movement in the company of her penny tortoise, Simone de Beauvoir, encouraging Ally to explore broad horizons and live her 'true essence'. And then there's Rick who lives in a flat out the back and finds distraction in gambling and solace in surfing.

He's trying to be a good father to Al Pal, while grieving the woman who links them all but whose absence tears them apart. Allegra is left to orbit these three worlds wishing they loved her a little less and liked each other a lot more. Until one day the unspoken tragedy that's created this division explodes within the person they all cherish most.
I've always thought that the best books are ones where you can turn the last page and think "this moved me" or "I really learnt something from reading this". Suzanne Daniel's outstanding debut did both for me. It's a triumph for not only bringing such heart to a story which captures the complex links in familial ties, but one girl's coming-of-age as she seeks to reconcile where she fits into it all. Written from Allegra's distinct voice, there's a good balance here of both childhood innocence with some heavier themes of dealing with the absence of a parent, the state of women's liberation in Australia in the 1970s, women who are victims of violence and a glimpse into the migrant experience at that time.

'It's a funny thing, Allegra', says Sister, offering me another Shortbread Cream. People think respect comes from success, fame or fortune, when in fact the most admired quality at the end of the day is kindness. Because kindness, dear - kindness - is the best indicator of a person's wellbeing. Yes, indeed, kind people are those who truly take pleasure in their time on earth.'

Both of Allegra's grandmothers love her immensely, and her father too, though all of these adults in her life have been affected by the turmoil of her mother not being there with them. Joy and Matilde with their contrasting personalities and approaches to life made this a colourful read, with Rick becoming a more steady force as the story goes on. Though there's definitely a theme of female empowerment, and not just in an overtly feminist tone, there was also a look into positive male role models and how men grieve too when hit by life's tragedies.

'Can you smell the air coming in off the salt water?' says Rick, inhaling slowly. I follow his lead and breathe in the air. 'You know what I reckon, Al...the cure for everything is salt water. Yep, think about it: sweat, tears, and the sea. They're all made up of salt water. The first two can pump out your pain and the last one - the sea - well, it washes it away,'

In all it's the idea that self-knowledge is a continuous process which made this book really stand out for me, and it's definitely become a firm favourite on my shelves. This is an altogether impressive debut from Suzanne Daniel, she is definitely a local author to watch!

For more insights about Allegra in Three Parts, read on for my interview with Suzanne Daniel!

Thank you so much for stopping by on the blog Suzanne. and congratulations on releasing your first novel! What were some of the biggest challenges and best moments in your journey to having Allegra in Three Parts published?

Thank you for having me!

For a number of years writing my novel was a private thing, something of a hobby I was fitting around work and family. This gave me creative freedom but it also meant I wasn’t accountable to anyone else, or to a time frame. And without either of these, there was always something more pressing to do. I had to work hard to improve my self discipline, make myself go to the desk and spend time on something that was never urgent. If the writing was flowing well, I became totally absorbed and it took on a momentum of it’s own. I was loathed to stop and couldn’t wait to get back to it. When it wasn’t, I’d wander off to make another cup of tea, end up cleaning a cupboard or making a phone call. After a while I made myself push through the less inspired writing episodes by setting a daily word count and I wouldn’t allow myself to rise form the desk until I hit it. This became my magic formula.

I started to write the book in the third person but that wasn’t capturing Allegra on every level. I wanted her story to be visceral but I’d been told that trying to write in the first person was too ambitious for a first time novelist. I fiddled, tested and tweaked, and finally I found Allegra’s voice. Once I did, she kind of led me and we were away.

A quote from Simone de Beauvoir "Self knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it", opens this novel beautifully and sets the tone for the rest of the story. How did the state of feminism in Australia in the 1970s first come into the picture for the socio-cultural setting of Allegra in Three Parts?

I'm fascinated by this period in history and what was happening for women during the second wave of the women’s movement. Not just the street marches and the mobilising actions of the ‘sisterhood’, but for women out in the suburbs, some staying in marriages they were disillusioned with, others leaving them to carve out a new identity. Many women ended up leading double lives: feminist uni student by day, then a second shift as homemaker, wife and mother. Conversations were starting to change among women and between women and men. 

Women were opening up to one another in a new way, starting to understand through sharing their private thoughts, responses and feelings, that it wasn’t ‘just me’ but that what they were experiencing was almost universal. The personal did become political. And of course you have to fully understand yourself before you know what will make you content in the long term. Hence I chose the Simone de Beauvoir quote to open the novel. I also liked it because it sets the scene for Allegra’s ultimate coming of age. 

'Adult fiction' written from a child's perspective as the main character has made for some interesting reads. How did you find the experience of writing about some confronting issues such as domestic violence, racism and the absence of a parent through eleven-year-old Allegra's eyes?

I remember myself and know from raising three children, that a child’s development and understanding isn’t linear. An eleven-year-old can swing from almost adult insight, to breathtaking naivety many times in one day. Once I placed Allegra in the various confronting situations dealing with domestic violence, racism and an absent mother, I dug deep to put myself inside her head and her heart. I did a lot of research on the effects of conflict on a child as well as ‘cred testing’ Allegra’s responses with my youngest daughter, Francesca (who was about 14 when I started writing the novel) and my cousin’s daughter, Molly when she was actually eleven.
The complexities of finding true friendships and navigating how the 'social hierarchy' works as a young adolescent also seemed to underscore Allegra's development in the story. Do you think much has changed around these issues in today's age compared to when the book is set?

Thankfully I think things have improved somewhat in that adults and educators are now much more aware of the damaging effects that bullying has on a young person. In the 1970s, when this book is set, sadly bullying was often seen as just ‘kids being kids’ and so many children suffered dreadfully at the hands of bullies. And of course scratch beneath the surface and the bullies were usually suffering in some way themselves too. I know from being on the Board of a large senior school that a lot of effort and resources are now dedicated to combating bullying and creative strategies are put into place. Even so, humans are still programmed similarly and navigating the 'social hierarchy’ remains a challenge for children and adolescents today. And of course they are dealing with things that weren’t around in the 1970s like social media.
A key strength of this book and what makes it so memorable for me is how well-developed all the characters are, especially Allegra's grandmothers Matilde and Joy. What did you find significant about having these two women feature in the story?

I wanted to show love delivered in different ways to a child within one family so Matilde and Joy, being neighbours but so polarised, gave me a great opportunity to do that. They have very different backgrounds, aspirations and world views but both love Allegra wholeheartedly. I wanted my readers to see these grandmothers in all their humanity, magnificent one minute, flawed the next. And even though readers' allegiances might swing back and forth between Matilde and Joy, ultimately I hoped by the end of the novel they would at least understand both of them and certainly care about them too. To me a well-developed character is someone I care about and I really worked hard to make that happen, so thank you for finding my characters this way.

Without giving too much away, is there a favourite moment or quote that struck a chord with you wen writing this book?

So not to spoil things for those yet to read Allegra In Three Parts I’ll nominate the strudel making scene, the I AM WOMAN scene, the glass house scene, the tent scenes and the final pages. I could go on…

About the author

Suzanne Daniel is a journalist and communications consultant who has also worked for ABC TV, the Sydney Morning Herald, the United Nations, BBC (London) and in crisis management and social services. For the past twenty years she has served on community, philanthropic and public company boards. Suzanne lives in Sydney with her husband and family. Allegra in Three Parts is her first novel.

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