Love Among Bitter Siblings

– by Sarah Cole

After sitting in on a couple of great discussions at Perth Writers Festival panels this year, I was feeling inspired to dig up some classic Aussie literature. It’s a testament to Olga Masters’ wonderfully sticky storytelling that I finished Loving Daughters in three days. Olga’s work was unknown to me before I found this short novel by chance; it became one of those instances where I wondered how I hadn’t heard of her sooner.

Set in provincial New South Wales, which is still battered from World War I, this Edwardian drama follows siblings Jack and Violet, her shell-shocked husband Ned, and Jack’s children – particularly his daughters Enid and Una, after whom the book is named. Their (rather competitive) flirtation with a young, freshly imported English minister is the hottest gossip in the small world of their little town, and something which everybody hedges an opinion on. It might have read like a dull soap opera, but Olga’s narrative eavesdrops in the most forbidden places, on her characters’ private thoughts, on longings and spites, their ugly desires and beliefs. It’s oil on the flames when the young minister marries the daughter probably much less suitable for him.

The writing of Loving Daughters has an old-fashioned quality with a slick of sardonic wit – like an Austen comedy of manners with the frills pared back by distinctly Australian sensibilities. Merciless character study is the focus and drive of Olga’s storytelling, which is rare in modern fiction: nobody is romanticised, all flaws are on show, and unhappy relationship dynamics are rather ruthlessly examined. “My writing is all about human behaviour… It’s about the violence that’s inside the human heart,” Olga has said; and the violence is fascinating.

Ultimately the story can come to no happy resolution, but that’s part of its charm. It’s a satire, a dark one at that, of the clumsiness and pettiness of human reality, and the subject offers little for a formulaic ending. Loving Daughters has plenty of accolades and won a National Book Council award at the time of its release in 1984. Now reprinted and re-released for contemporary readers by UQP Modern Classics, it’s a gem which makes me want to explore and unearth more of our heritage literature.

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