Australian Horniman’s second novel to appear here (after Mahalia, 2003) feels like a tender first: a lushly emotive, coming-of-age saga about a lesbian girl and her enigmatic half-sister.
In the tropical rain forest outside Sydney, in the hills behind Mullumbimby, sisters Laura and Lizzie Zambelli live a charmed, back-to-nature existence with their artist parents, Emma and Claudio, and little sister Chloe. Early on, Lizzie tells narrator Laura, she realized that they couldn’t have the same father: They look very different, and Claudio, a gregarious documentary filmmaker who “wanted more and more of life all the time,” seems cold to Lizzie. As the girls grow older, this impressionistic tale will show them acquiring many other secrets, especially the intoxicating charms of romantic love. When Emma’s girlhood friend and her odd daughter, Paris, come to stay, handsome Claudio is instantly smitten by the lean, blond, younger Stella. The inevitable rupture occurs: Claudio moves in with Stella and Paris, and secretive Emma loses the love of her life. In alternate chapters, Horniman portrays in wispy prose the story of Emma’s youthful friendship with Stella and her hip mother, Flora. They are neighbors to Emma’s eccentric Aunt Em, a spinster she first visits at age 16, when she begins to paint in earnest. Emma’s mother, father and sister all die in quick succession, leaving Emma to fend for herself. At the university in the early 1970s, she meets Claudio and loves him deeply; he begins to love her only after she becomes pregnant by another man. Other chapters pursue the dawning sexual awakening of both Lizzie, who grows gorgeously zaftig, and Laura, who realizes early on that she likes girls. There are several meandering novellas-in-a-novel here, and no real center as the point of view shifts.
Atmospheric and exotic, but doesn’t add up to more than a series of pretty set pieces.