My Brilliant Sister by Amy Brown
My Brilliant Sister by Amy Brown

BooksJune 15, 2024

‘The sort of book that lingers’: My Brilliant Sister by Amy Brown, reviewed

My Brilliant Sister by Amy Brown
My Brilliant Sister by Amy Brown

Amy Brown’s debut novel is a three-part ode to family and art-making interrupted.

My Brilliant Sister is a marginalia-worthy literary tryptych – a novel in three parts, with three very distinct point of view characters – that explores creation in all its forms, from childbirth to art and everything in between, and the choices we make (or don’t get to make).

The novel is also an exploration, from original and unexpected angles, into the family life of the early 20th century Australian writer, Miles Franklin, who wrote My Brilliant Career, a story about the unconventional Sybylla, who aspires to be a writer, and her younger sister, the polite and obedient Gertie. 

Franklin was only 16 when she wrote what is now considered an Australian classic. When it was published in 1901, she became an international publishing sensation at the age of 21. Today, Franklin is regarded as one of Australia’s earliest feminists, albeit one who had to use a gender-obscuring nom de plume (her full name was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin). 

Miles Franklin, and the cover of the first edition of My Brilliant Career.

Part one of My Brilliant Sister, which is titled ‘Ida’, is narrated by a New Zealand writer and mother who has accompanied her partner to Australia, at short notice, after he is offered a prestigious academic role. Also an academic and writer, we learn early on that the modern-day Ida was bitterly angry at the time “about not being asked”, but opts for comfortable dishonesty and says nothing. She takes a job as an English teacher.  

When Ida returns to the classroom at the beginning of the school year, she introduces My Brilliant Career to her senior English class. Her top student, Scarlett, analyses the text as ironic and ambivalent, thus introducing the reader to not only Franklin’s text but also to the nature of this contemporary story. Just as My Brilliant Career reads like an autobiography, “Ida” reads like a memoir. (I assumed it was, until I learned otherwise. In an interview, Brown describes it as an “autofictional” story.)

While we learn the name of Ida’s four-year-old daughter is Aster, her partner is referred to only as “He”. As the story progresses, we are given evidence that He privileges his time, his work, and even his literary tastes over hers (his favourite author is Sebald; he tells her My Brilliant Career is rubbish). Despite Covid – the story is set in Melbourne in 2021, a year the city’s residents found themselves in lockdown for 108 days – life charges forward for him, while she is forced to adapt, having to pivot to online teaching, while also caring for Aster and attending to domestic tasks. 

The tension builds. Resentment simmers, exacerbated by the relentless stream of lockdowns, which amplify the inherent imbalances in their relationship. 

And then Ida falls ill, not with Covid as she expects, but with pneumonia. He steps up, caring for both her and his daughter. But, when she’s recovered, He once again privileges his time and work over hers. They fight. “Drunk on the adrenaline of the argument”, all her bitterness tumbles forth. 

In a bid to find her creative self again, Ida begins to write about Miles Franklin’s little-known younger sister, Ida, who was nicknamed Linda, and in this we once again find a metanarrative for the book itself. 

Ida (aka Brown) reflects: “The woman whose voice I imagine is not Linda (because there was a real Linda and that presses upon me), and it is not me, and is not Gertie (Miles Franklin’s fictional sister), but a ghostly overlapped self who is with me all the time now. She is there as I teach and cook and do all the many other verbs of each day.”

Amy Brown and the cover of the first edition of My Brilliant Sister.

Part two, titled ‘Stillwater’, is narrated by Linda (aka Ida), in the year leading up to her death from pneumonia, at only 25. In her silent, imagined conversations with her father, mother and sister, we journey with a woman who not only knows her own feelings but interrogates her opinions about those feelings, and a woman journeying resignedly towards her own death.

While critiquing her famous sister, who had “veered off the correct course of feminity”, Linda’s own self-knowledge shines through; it’s clear she is aware of her own foibles. There is envy: she has married Charles Graham, on whom the fictional Sybylla’s love interest is based, and while triumphant about winning him over, I get the sense she feels like a consolation prize. There is dissatisfaction: of their father, Linda has many questions, including “why he seldom spoke to Mother, whether he worried about us. None of my questions were easily answered, so they remained unasked.” There is anger at her sister: “‘But it’s not autobiography!’ she cries. Fuck her naivety, or more accurately, disingenuity.”

Part three, which is titled ‘Stella’, is the story of a globally successful singer-songwriter – she thinks of herself as a Kiwi PJ Harvey, or a Kiwi Björk – who has slunk back to the bach her family used to own in Ocean Beach. Stella has adopted the name ‘Miles’ as her stage name and has recently released her latest album, My Brilliant Career, but the pandemic puts the kibosh on touring.

Soon after her arrival in Ocean Beach, Stella throws her mobile phone into the lagoon, a futile attempt to inoculate herself from heartbreak (except, instead of stalking her lover online, she imagines far worse). 

She finds herself alone and lonely, grappling with finding a balance between security and freedom, questioning whether there are “two ways of being: one comfortable and dishonest, the other honest and uncomfortable”, which echoes back to the beginning of part one, when Ida confesses that pretending to swim was “my earliest memory of comfortable dishonesty chosen over honest discomfort”.

In other ways, parts one and three have much in common. They are both set in the same year. Both open with their respective protagonist’s intimate acquaintances with the lagoon at Ocean Beach, a 7.5km stretch of undeveloped coastline in Hawke’s Bay, from where Brown hails. Both reference Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. 

While they are distinct in significant ways – Ida is at first considerate, verging on self-sacrificing, while Stella is self-obsessed, even wondering about her own opportunistic nature – in many ways, they serve as bookends for the second and longest part of the tryptych, which is (coincidentally?) 108 pages.

As someone who is more acquainted with “otherhood” than “motherhood”, and more involved in creation than procreation, I soon found allegiance with Stella when I read, “My mother knows that her a grandchild is carried on soundwaves instead of arms. In place of birthdays, this child has launches; rather than one name, many titles.”

Stella’s narration is imbued with interiority. I couldn’t help but suspect she might be an unreliable narrator and, in some ways, she was. Her character really comes alive in scenes when she interacts with others (her mother and her friends, Linda and Ana). In these moments, we learn she is both funny and wise, although often still self-absorbed (she is caught talking aloud to herself, without realising she is doing it). 

When Stella wonders “if all daughters are as parasitic as me”, I wonder if daughters who are mothers ever think this. And I wonder if sisters who become mothers feel abandoned by those sisters who, by chance or circumstance, do not become mothers (perhaps excepting those who are damn good aunties).

My Brilliant Sister is the sort of book that lingers. Ida, Linda and Stella remain with me, as I write and cook and do all the many other verbs of each day.

My Brilliant Sister by Amy Brown ($38, Simon & Schuster) is available to purchase at Unity Books. Kerry Sunderland is a contributor author Otherhood: Essays on being childfree, childless and child adjacent ($40, Massey University Press), also available from Unity Books.

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