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Book review: The Olive Sisters

The Olive Sisters by Amanda Hampson

Penguin Books 2005

To write fantasy fiction, especially historical fantasy fiction, reading a wide variety of other genres set in related locations or using related themes, characters types can be helpful. For me, The Olive Sisters, by Amanda Hampson, is one such read. Set in country New South Wales, Australia, the novel is the story of one woman’s changing circumstances and a forced reconciliation with her past. Along the way she discovers a few family secrets, which give her the opportunity to understand the dynamics that have shaped her life and impacted her relationship with her daughter.

Also, the back cover blurb compares her new home with the romantic version of Tuscany that always attracts my attention.

I open the gate and walk into the field…

As the sun pours a river of flight down this valley,

I realise there are hundreds and hundreds of trees

And I’ve seen those silver leaves before, not here

In Australia, but shimmering in the groves

That grace the terraced hillsides of Tuscany.

When Adrienne’s marketing company goes down, her lifestyle does too. She retreats form the city to a beautiful, abandoned olive grove once owned by her Italian grandparents. A ‘tree change’ isn’t what Adrienne has in mind, however, and life in the country delivers some surprises as she confronts the past and learns the secrets of the Olive Sisters…

Old loves, new loves, warm toast and rich traditions are all part of the delicious blend of this absorbing story.

Bryce Courtenay had this to say about The Olive Sisters, “A moving novel of journeys, family and finding yourself – by an exciting new Australian author.’

The Olive Sisters is indeed about journeys: Adrienne Bennet’s unfolding journey as well as those that came before her. The story switches between Adrienne’s journey and that of her parents. Her mother died relatively young and her father, already estranged from the family, more recently. It was he that left the olive farm to his daughter – a dusty, disused sanctuary from the city and a life taking a wild left turn from where it was meant to be heading.

I enjoyed the historical parts of the story – the arrival of the Martino family in the 1950s to a small country town in a time where being foreign was “frowned upon”. Italians were not welcome and the young family with their accents, ways, food, and religion were no exception. A lot of Australians are quite familiar with those old attitudes, but really not much (except perhaps the origin of the foreigners) has changed. Old racist habits embedded into culture don’t go away. A thin veil only divides us from then and now.

The Martino’s learn to deal with the bigotry and remain determined to carve their future in the fertile hills around Duffy’s Creek. They came from an olive growing family and had brought with them, ever so carefully, olive plants from their home orchard to start again in their new country. Nowadays, olives and olive oil are common, but in the 50s it was all so new. And so, foreign. The story of the olive is intertwined with that of the people who tended their groves so lovingly despite the hate and hardships.

As past and present travel toward each other, Adrienne gains an understanding of parents and an acceptance that what transpired in her childhood was a product of their self-imposed dysfunction. She recognises her feelings of guilt and abandonment for what they are and realises she is re-enacting the dysfunction with her own daughter. Moving from the bright lights of Sydney to the little country town of Duffy’s Creek was not her plan at all, and throughout Adrienne grapples with losing her dreams, the betrayals that litter her life, and the potential of a new future. She has only to accept what she learns and decide where she wants that future to be.

The style of writing is fluid and involving. Hampson’s characters are natural: flawed yet hopeful, and the backstory is interesting and does its job of moving the reader through the journey well. A nice rhythm and peaceful setting help to show readers the anguish and realisation of truths that the main characters must deal with.

If you like history mixed with contemporary, a touch of literary and drop or two of subtle romance all tinted with the tempting scent of Tuscany, you just might enjoy The Olive Sisters.

The Olive Sisters, Amanda’s debut novel, was published in 2005 by Penguin Books. Amanda is from New Zealand, but Australia has been her home since 1979 (The Olive Sisters author bio). She’s since written a bunch of other novels that I’m now on the look out for. Read more about The Olive Sisters


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