Meet Dorcas, a spirited 12-year-old struggling to contain her irrepressible humour and naughty streak in a family of Christadelphians in 1960s Adelaide. She is her mother’s least favourite child and always at the bottom of the order on the family’s string of beads that she and her younger siblings Ruthy and Caleb reorder according to their mother’s ever-changing moods.
Dorcas, an aspiring vet, dreams of having a dog, or failing that, a guinea pig named Thruppence. Ruthy wants to attend writing school, and Caleb wants to play footy with the local team. But Christadelphians aren’t allowed to be ‘of the world’ and when their older brother Daniel is exiled to door knock and spread the good word in New South Wales after being caught making out with Esther Dangerfield at youth camp, each try their hardest to suppress their dreams for a bigger life. But for a girl like Dorcas, dreams have a habit of surfacing at the most inopportune moments, and as she strives to be the daughter her mother desires, a chain of mishaps lead to a tragedy no one could have foreseen.
Denise Picton’s debut novel The Family String explores 12-year-old Dorcas’ childhood in 1960s Adelaide within a strict religious household. Her family are Christadelphians, a denomination of Christianity that leaves little room for fun, culture or entertainment. Dorcas is an energetic, free-spirited child who struggles within the confines of the family home, is always getting into trouble with her mother, and who doesn’t quite understand why her actions are always being punished.
Because the book is written from Dorcas’ perspective, it allows for a fun and lively perspective. Her voice is insightful and hopeful, and so even when the book takes a dark turn, we feel the heart and soul of the story permeating with each passing chapter. Not every reader will love reading from Dorcas’ perspective, but she is an intelligent and observant character and allows for an entertaining journey.
“To record our views about the order of Mum’s love, Caleb used six wooden beads he got from Mr Driver next door. Caleb nominated the best gold one as Mum and put her bead at the top of a piece of string that was thick enough to hold the beads exactly where he put them on the thread.”
The Family String does well to weave in so many overarching themes in the book without feeling contrived or rigid. A key exploration in the story is the dynamic and complex relationships between mothers and daughters, and the importance of repairing a broken relationship. The Family String also explores depression and how people regarded depression in the 1960s, as well as religion and religious constraint within the family home.
Strengths also lie in the secondary characters – the compassionate Mr Driver was one of my favourites. The community is close-knit and sometimes this causes friction within Dorcas’ family. In a town where everyone knows your business, tensions rise and arguments spark. I’m sure readers from small towns will be able to relate!
“I was still in the bad books for going down to the shop one night after school and buying ten cents’ worth of mixed lollies and putting them on the tick under Mum’s name. Mum was furious when she found out I’d charged them to her account and yelled at Mrs Abrahams in the shop as much as she yelled at me.”
Admittedly, I did feel that the turning point in the novel came a bit too late in the story. A great portion of the novel is setting up the dynamic within the family and the community and so the pacing does start to lull a bit in the middle of the book – I was starting to question the direction of the book, wondering when the climax of the story was going to near. Ultimately, the book explores a fractured relationship between mother and daughter and how they have to reconnect after a family tragedy. But this family tragedy comes quite late in the story, and I would’ve liked more time to be spent in the aftermath of that tragedy rather than the events preceding it.
And whilst I loved Dorcas’ perspective and her wild nature, it doesn’t ever feel like she learns from her mistakes or spends much time reconciling with her actions. I know she’s a child, but some of her actions are deliberately rebellious and there is quite a horrific tragedy at the end of the story, and there doesn’t seem to be much contemplation coming through from Dorcas. She simply misbehaves and then moves on to misbehave again.
“One day, Mrs Johnson had said about the most wonderful thing I had ever heard. She told me that if my mum and dad gave permission, I could have Sixpence as my very own as soon as my dad made a safe enclosure in our garden. I was so excited I ran straight home and nearly knocked Mum over when I hurtled into the kitchen with the news. Her answer was a very firm no.”
Heartfelt fiction about family, responsibility and the impressionable years of our youth, The Family String is recommended for literary readers. Readership skews female, 30+
Thank you to the publisher for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
The Family String