Title: The Bellbird River Country Choir
Author: Sophie Green
Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2022; RRP $32.99
Australian author Sophie Green’s The Bellbird River Country Choir follows a successful track record. Her 2018 debut novel The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club was long listed for the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year and the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction. It, along with The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle and Thursdays at Orange Blossom House, were Top 10 bestsellers.
This is a book about relationships between men and women, about women alone and in their friendships with other women, and between family members held loosely together within their shared experiences as members of a small-town community choir, and the town community itself.
As can be seen in the titles of her other bestsellers, there is a formulaic base to her works, but I say this without judgement. I, like countless others, value the security of a familiar narrative formula that we already know is going to work for us. Her presence in Top 10 bestseller lists also signifies more than just commercial success. I chose to read this book because I like small-town stories and anything with a choir in it but also because I was in the mood for an easy-reading escape.
From the beginning that is exactly what The Bellbird River Country Choir offers, but as the story unfolded this changed — what it lacked in depth was made up by the range of relationship and personal issues it covered. It does not pretend to be an in-depth exploration, but the events and the feelings, thoughts and reactions of the characters concerned are familiar or easy to identify with. Most importantly, they become characters easy to care about, a vital ingredient in any reading experience.
The choir is the focal place where the main characters mingle and bounce off each other. The other setting is the town itself and the dry, brown country surrounding it. The town itself and surroundings are experienced and explored through the different characters who inhabit it, both longtime and new.
The story begins through the eyes of single mother Alex who has moved out of the city, motivated by a need to live more cheaply and be able to spend more time with her daughter.
Some of the issues the choir members experience include the battle between Alex and her daughter, who desperately wants to return to Sydney to live instead with the beloved grandmother Alex is in continual conflict with; a mother riddled with guilt, released from a jail sentence she knows she deserved, fighting to reconnect with the children she knows she betrayed, and fearful of the townspeople finding out; a close brother-and-sister relationship fragmented by the brother’s schizophrenia after a seemingly normal childhood, his parents unable to cope and the daughter who tries to protect him; a closet artist; a compassionate stepmother unable to bear her own children responsible for those of another; a strong and dignified older woman forced to deal with her husband’s desertion for someone younger; a famous soprano unable to accept her diminished vocal range after a throat operation; a child bullied endlessly at school and her mother’s struggles to help her.
This tapestry of personal and relationship issues is not unfamiliar. Many can be found behind the closed doors of ordinary homes and streets around us. A success of the work is that they are woven together seamlessly, creating an image of a community of individuals that covers a lot of ground without collapsing under the weight of its own complexity.
In each case the situations the choir members are dealing with are also set within the context of the society in which they play out, and include the thinking and self-exploration by the individuals suffering each trauma, from the irritating or temporary to the toxic. The bullied child exists in the story within the context of the school and the town and the psychology of the school playground — bullying that many parents will identify with. The female victim of a bullying lover looks deep within herself, extricating her own fear, loneliness and a desperate need for affection from the ugliness of the man who abuses her. The soprano is suffering what many older retired Australians experience when their working lives retreat.
It is not a poetic work using clever literary devices, nor does it offer anything new to the genre, but nevertheless I was totally engaged as the story slowly unfolded deeper into the lives of the different choir members and the life of the town. It strength is the skill with which the narrative is constructed: how it all hangs together and its humanity. There are also places where the author captured sensitive and delicate states of being, pinpointing subtle emotional responses.
When the distraught soprano rings an old friend complaining about the choir, we read,
‘Dear me,’ purrs Ivan comfortingly. Which is the reason she rang him: he’s good at being reassuring.
Or another leaving her lover,
Checking twice over her shoulder to see if he’s followed her, because for some reason she feels like prey.
It is still what would be described as light reading but sometimes the simplest of narratives travel a long way. There are one or two undeniably corny bits, but they fit in the end because life is sometimes corny too.
Very satisfying for when you are in the mood for an easy, reliably feel-good read that does not demand much thinking but which carries you away, believably, from your external world with its demands and into another place. With its distinctly Australian setting – located in a tiny fictional town a short distance from Tamworth — it will also appeal especially to small-town Australian readers.
Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell
Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group
Review copy supplied by the publisher