Book review: The Bellbird River Country Choir by Sophie Green

(courtesy Hachette Australia)

Despite all its lustrous, wondrously glittering possibility, life has a way sometimes, or much of the time if it has dealt you more than a few harsh blows, of feeling like it’s done as much as it’s going to do.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you have given up on life; hope, in even in the most beleaguered of souls has a way of persisting even in the face of implacable odds but it can be buried so deep that even the most ardently hopeful can find themselves lost in a slough of dead ends and has-been moments.

That’s certainly the case for many of the women in Sophie Green’s newest novel, The Bellbird River Country Choir, the author’s 1998-set love letter to hope and its trenchant ability to make its presence felt even in the most lost of people, courtesy of accidental connections that end up coming to mean a great deal more value than first appearance might suggest.

Much as in her earlier novel, the delightfully enriching Thursdays at Orange Blossom House, the women in question live in a small country town, this time the fictional Bellbird River near Tamworth, a place made up of longtime locals such as the imperiously kind Victoria, scion of one of the town’s most beloved families, and lonely young baker Janine, and newly-arrived or returned people like schoolteacher Alex (with book loving daughter Kim reluctantly in tow), ex-con Debbie who’s searching for a way to reconnect with her kids, and Gabrielle (Victoria’s cousin), a world-famous opera singer who is struggling with where to go next after an operation gone wrong.

“So maybe the congratulations were premature. Maybe that’s one friend she’s not going to make in this town. She’ll have to worry about that later, though. For now she has bags to unpack, a child to feed, and no bed to crawl into as she contemplates the changes she has wrought on their lives.” (Alex – P. 10)

Every single of these women, no matter how obviously open to change or not they may be, are at a crossroads in their life, with each of them looking for somewhere new to go, even if initially some of them have not admitted that to themselves.

Someone who very much knows that she wants a new beginning is single mum Alex, a 29-year-old schoolteacher with an 11-year-old daughter who, eager to escape Sydney in the lead up to the 2000 Olympics, takes a posting to the small town of Bellbird River, hoping that here lies the possibility of something new and different.

She is the most outgoing of the group of disparate women who, for a whole host of reasons, suddenly find themselves joining the Bellbird River Country Choir at the same time, unsure of what it will offer beyond the obvious – singing songs in harmony with others – but cautiously hopefully that some good may come of it.

Not that any of them are really willing to admit that.

The beauty of Green’s writing, and it’s on lavish display in The Bellbird River Country Choir, is that even in the midst of what is a feel good road to eventual connection and happiness, people are grappling with some hugely weighty issues that aren’t simply solved by coming into contact with someone else.

Sophie Green (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

That never really happens in real life, and it doesn’t happen in The Bellbird River Country Choir either with every last character struggling in one way or another to emerge out from under some big life issues that have left them wondering if life actually has anything left to offer them.

To varying degrees they desperately want it to still be as ripe and full of possibility as they once believed, but when you’ve committed some grave error or had someone betray you or watched your family come unglued in way that doesn’t feel salvageable , it can be hard to simply bounce back to a point where you’re willing to see what lies just over the horizon.

Those kinds of journeys are gradual and halting, and even as Victoria and Gabrielle try to restore a once vibrant closeness and Janine, Alex and Debbie find they might become the very best of friends, they all encounter an inner protective mechanism that makes them hesitant to go rushing in too excitedly.

As a result of this grounded, fulsomely realised and vivaciously alive characterisation, The Bellbird River Country Choir possesses an authentically honest quality that you may not automatically ascribe to a novel that sits happily in the burgeoning and soul-restoring second-chances genre.

Quite a number of the members of this genre act as if life coming alive again is a matter of coincidence and willingness to change, and sometimes it is and that’s wonderful, but often it isn’t, and we have to work for that second step into life, often far harder than we have for anything in our life.

” Victoria doesn’t actually feel like drinking any wine but she’ll keep Gabrielle company. There’s nothing else ahead of them this afternoon or this evening, and she can think of no one she’d rather do nothing with.” (p. 276)

Those wand waving members of the genre are their own kind of pleasurable delight, and necessary when you feel as if good things simply don’t happen to anyone anymore, but sometimes, often times really, you want a novel like The Bellbird River Country Choir to come your way because it offers the real possibility of something restoratively real actually happening to you.

They possess a fairytale quality true, a heartfelt whimsicality that stares down life’s more vicious tendencies and offer up the chance of things reinventing and enlivening themselves, but they ground themselves in some very real human nature, the kind that sees the hope of connection and renewal but is afraid it may not play out, and even if it does, it may disappoint or hurt you all over again.

They are valid concerns, and all of the main characters in The Bellbird River Country Choir possess them; they want life to get a new and lustrous sheen, and they want to engage wholeheartedly with it but past hurts are there and they can act as a drag on that enthusiasm and Green is honest enough to admit to their presence even as her characters find themselves slowly inching towards a second chance at happiness.

What makes The Bellbird River Country Choir such a joy to read in the end is that it gives us those second chances and those fresh connections and renewed sense that life is not done with the good things yet, but it does so in a way that feels grounded and believable, which makes that most perfect and spirit-reviving of reads – a story which knows life can be hard and tough and admits to it, but which also counters that it can be gloriously uplifting and nourishingly connected too and that we should set our eyes on that and keep pushing forward until our fears drop away and life comes alive again in ways that delight us, and the characters in this wonderful book, in ways we never knew were possible.

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