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BOOK REVIEW: Singing My Sister Down and Other Stories by Margo Lanagan

| 10 October 2017 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Singing My Sister Down and Other Stories by Margo Lanagan

Allen & Unwin
May 2017
Paperback, $19.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Short Story Collection / Young Adult


‘We all went down to the tar-pit, with mats to spread our weight.’ So begins ‘Singing My Sister Down’, Margo Lanagan’s internationally acclaimed, award-winning short story. 

Singing My Sister Down and Other Stories brings together ten celebrated short stories, along with three new ones, from the extraordinarily talented author of Tender Morsels and Sea Hearts

A bride accepts her devastating punishment. A piece of the moon is buried. A ferryman falls into the Styx. Wee Willie Winkie brings a waking nightmare. A new father dresses a fallen warrior princess. A sniper picks off clowns one by one. Margo Lanagan’s stories will stay with you, haunting you with their quiet beauty and fine balance.


Singing My Sister Down continues to be the story that simultaneously devastates me and leaves me in awe of Lanagan’s writing ability, and the fact that this collection was named for that same story suggested many great (and greatly terrible) things.

This is the story told by a boy as he and the rest of his family comfort and keep his older sister company as she sinks into the tar pits, to her death, as punishment for a crime. 

Also of particular note are:

  • Sweet Pippit, in which a family of elephants go looking for their loving handler who was taken in the night.

    His name was something like Pippit. It was too short for our ears to catch, as all peeple’s names are; twig-snaps and bird-cheeps, they finish before they properly start. But his smell was a lasting thing, and his hand. Pippit of all peeple could tell badness from goodness, as we could.

  • Ferryman, in which a young girl takes lunch to her father who works as a ferryman for the dead, and sees first hand the perils of the job.

    Some say my dad is ugly. I say, his kind of work would turn anyone ugly, all the gloom and doom of it. And anyway, I don’t care – my dad is my dad. He can be ugly as a sackful of bumholes and still I’ll love him.

  • Winkie, in which a girl attempts to run back home in the middle of the night and is snatched up by a giant who wears a nightgown stitched together from the nightgowns of many children.

    The bad smell was much worse all of a sudden. Oll choked into the knee-cloth of her nightgown, trying to see through her tears.
    ‘Agh,’ he said. ‘Well, how about – these is good for a snack, after they’ve lain awhile.’ He looked doubtfully at the pile. He had one in his hand, by its little blackened leg. As Oll watched, the leg came out of its rotten hip socket, and the rest of the baby fell back onto the pile.

  • Red Nose Day, in which clowns are everywhere, and our main character is a part of the resistance which is picking them off via sniper-rifle.

    He must have heard me not clapping, my absence of delight. ‘What was your name again?’ he said, his face pushed into the light-bruised rainclouds.
    If it’s got a red nose, never tell it your true name, said Frik-knuckles before he went off to the tram-station to lay his head on the rail. Or he’ll call you it, and call you it, until the sound of it in anyone’s mouth will just about make you chunder. Call yourself Billy or Tommy or anything that’s not your name. That way it can be happening to that other kid, and you can keep your own name for yourself.

For this owner of copies of all of Margo Lanagan’s books, this short story collection was a no-brainer. But from that same place comes a certain level of disappointment. It was made clear from the blurb that this book was a collection of ten previously published stories and three new works. This would suggest some kind of “best of” selection process but, for this reader, these were not the best of Lanagan. Of course this is subjective to the person selecting the titles, and perhaps other readers will be glad these ten were selected, and not others I would have preferred.

With a sampling of stories from Lanagan’s four other collections – White Time, Yellowcake, Red Spikes, and Black Juice – this book is a great way for readers to get a taste for her words, but this collection does not remove the need for those other collections. It doesn’t establish itself as the ideal collection (in this reader’s opinion) and it feels as though the stories could have been printed in a different order to better astound readers. 

As it is, the collection starts with the huge, devastating bang of Singing My Sister Down, and ends with the rather gentle, dream-like A Fine Magic. It would have perhaps been better to have the titular story at the very end, or one of the other four notable stories mentioned above. With the final story as it is, however, the reader is left feeling a little let down at the lack of oomph.

Perhaps I’ve just been spoiled by Lanagan’s amazing storytelling, and I went into this book with too high hopes. This is a good collection and, though at times a little uneven, Margo’s fantastic storytelling shines through in even the lowest points of this collection. My heart still belongs to Tender Morsels and Seahearts (The Brides of Rollrock Island in the US), but I will continue to eagerly read anything Margo puts out.


Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

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