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Posted on 11 Jul 2019 in Fiction |

SUZANNE DANIEL Allegra in Three Parts. Reviewed by Sally Nimon

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The adults seem determined to make the world a baffling place for Allegra. Suzanne Daniel brings the 1970s to life in this debut novel.

Sometimes when I get information from secretly listening in to the adults, it feels as though growing up is not so much about getting taller or smarter or stronger, but about the happy shell of being a kid being chipped away from around me one chink at a time.

In this debut novel by Suzanne Daniel, it’s the 1970s, and 11-year-old Allegra is struggling to make sense of a world that seems determined to confound her most of the time. ‘I am Allegra on one side and Ally on the other,’ she says in the opening line, and we soon see why her life might seem as uncertain as a pendulum oscillating between extremes.

Take, for example, her two grandmothers, who share caregiving duties. One, Matilde, is dark, solemn and focused entirely on the hard work of being alive. And for Matilde, life is hard, something to be endured while you strive to make it possible for your dreams to be realised by those around you.

The other is Joy, light, flighty and filled with emotions she keeps bottled up – quite literally – in neatly labelled, tear-filled glass jars that she stores under the sink.

The third ‘part’ of Allegra, her relationship with her father Rick, is pieced together in the shadows left by these two strong female personalities. To Rick she is neither ‘Allegra’ nor ‘Ally’ but ‘Al Pal’, and this is certainly how he treats her on those occasions when we see them together; more like a young friend than a growing daughter.

Then there are Allegra’s peers. The popular Kimberly, who has money but few ethics, and who sees her social currency as a way of bending the world to her will.

Or Patricia, the new girl at school, who has rejected social pecking orders completely and forged a life for herself outside the normal rules, which have never worked very well for her anyway.

Indeed, the adults in Allegra’s life all seem determined to make the world a baffling place. Matilde keeps her house closed and insulated, with light and warmth rarely allowed to penetrate. Joy’s home, on the other hand, is open and full of visitors, but they are mainly strange women who ‘have cranky-sad faces’ or eyes that are ‘closed and all puffy and bruised’. Entertainment seems largely to consist of singing songs with aggressive lyrics (Helen Reddy’s anthem ‘I Am Woman’ is one) that are at odds with the welcoming ambience.

And then there’s religion. Allegra attends a convent school, and, as her confirmation draws near, she is tasked with choosing a sponsor. The local priest tells her class their sponsor must be ‘A person you admire – a good role model’ and someone who is ‘full of God’s grace’. Various questions from the children are answered with clear and rigid responses. They must be of the same gender. They cannot be a parent. You can’t have more than one because that would be excessive. So what is Allegra, with two grandmothers, to do? How is she to avoid offending either of them while accounting for God’s – rather particular – needs? Eventually, Joy is chosen, based on her Catholicism. Yet when the day arrives, Joy fails to appear and Matilde is forced to take over mid-ceremony. Allegra is terrified, fearing she has brought down upon herself both the wrath of the Almighty and Sister Josepha. But when her dilemma becomes apparent, the priest’s hard-line rules appear never to have mattered:

‘Allegra, where is your grandmother?’ [Sister Josepha] says. Then, glancing at Matilde, she specifies, ‘Your other grandmother?’

‘She’s been caught up with Whiskey Wendy,’ I whisper, realising that mightn’t sound like someone full of God’s grace.

‘Whiskey Wendy?… Oh… I see,’ she says. ‘Mrs Kaldor, would you like to accompany Allegra to the bishop?’ Sister clearly has absolutely no idea.

‘She can’t,’ I say in a rush. ‘She’s Jewish!’

‘So was Jesus Christ, dear.’

Suzanne Daniel has chosen an ambitious project for her debut. Having a child as a narrator means sustaining the voice of a naïve tween for a full 302 pages, while conveying a much more nuanced story to the older reader. While at times this technique is effective, there are occasional points in the narrative where Allegra seems just a little too young and naïve, even allowing for the fact that the tweens hanging out in the 1970s were probably less worldly than those streaming social media today. But this does allow for moments of playfulness, and also serves to show – despite many remaining frustrations – how far society has advanced over the last four to five decades.

Allegra in Three Parts is the story of how an 11-year-old girl living in Australia in a time long since passed faces the reality that, despite what fairytales and Disney would teach you, the world doesn’t always make neat narrative sense. People are not always consistent. One adult will tell you something that another will contradict. Matilde – by the time Allegra knows her – may seem dark and full of shadows, but the tattoo that remains etched on her wrist hints that she may have good reason to be. Joy seems light and carefree on the outside, but the glass jars under her sink hint that there is much more to her story, too. Even God, it appears, can occasionally see reason:

That part of my heart that draws blood from the tips of my fingers, between my toes, under my liver and around my oesophagus, is sending it all up the front of my neck to my face. And it’s pulsing: This is weird – this is weird – this is weird.

Unfortunately for the Allegras of the world, life rarely ceases to be weird. But this is part of its charm. As Allegra continues to discover throughout the pages of Daniel’s novel – and for the rest of her life, no doubt – it is also funny, and odd, and moving, and unfair, and frustrating and painful and serious and stupid, and all of these things combine to make us the unique creatures that we are. And becoming an adult doesn’t mean avoiding or removing this complexity, but embracing it and learning how to ride all the ups and downs.

Just as we all do eventually, often in more than three parts.

Suzanne Daniel Allegra in Three Parts Macmillan 2019 PB 302pp $29.99

Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre.

You can buy Allegra in Three Parts from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.