Thursday, 3 January 2019

Book review: The Yellow House, Emily O’Grady (2018)

This impressive first novel by a young Australian is a coming-of-age story. It is more than episodic, and with a strong poetic vision offers a completely-realised world. The entire narrative is focalised through the character of a 10-year-old girl named Coralie everyone calls “Cub”. Cub’s twin, Wally, is a naughty boy in the book’s early stages but his character undergoes a gradual change as he gets older and starts to show a talent for making sculptures out of Plasticine. While Wally is a major force propelling the drama in the book’s early stages he is soon overshadowed by Cub’s elder brother Cassie and by Cassie’s friend Ian.

Cub doesn’t like Ian and resents his existence in Cassie’s close circle. Cub’s problems are compounded due to the fact that her grandfather, Les, had murdered a number of young women and had disposed of the bodies in a building in the paddock next to Cub’s house called the knackery. People in the town, including students at the public school Cub and Wally attend, never forgave Les for his depredations and they continue to blame the family, notably Cub’s parents.

Some respite from the toxic atmosphere that surrounds Cub and Wally is provided when Helena, a relative, comes to live in the yellow house that Les had inhabited, with her daughter Tilly. (Les was a house painter and Cub’s father is also a painter.) Cub wants Tilly to be her friend and to help her to manage life in the town she inhabits but Tilly is not enthusiastic. Tilly goes to a private school in the town, not the public school Cub and Wally go to. (It should be noted for the record that a large proportion of Australian secondary school students go to private schools, in the order of 34 percent of all students. Things are different in the UK and in the US, where only a small minority of students go to private schools. So attending a private school in Australia doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as it does in either of those two countries.)

It’s not clear why Helena and Tilly have moved to the town, but it might have something to do with changed familial circumstances. There is no mention in the book of Tilly’s father.

Cassie is at one stage in the story ejected from the family home because of his conduct. There is something that he and Ian are doing in the knackery. There is also some rumour about Cassie and a girl who was interfered with but eventually Cub’s parents allow Cassie to come home, although he won’t go back to school. He ends up working at a pub in the town. Cub is fiercely loyal to Cassie and deeply resents Ian, whom she blames for all the bad things that have happened to the family in recent times. Then Tilly goes missing and Cub makes a disturbing discovery in the paddock next to the family home.

The poetry in this novel is strongly animated by a demotic ordinariness that barely hides a vicious tendency in people. The way that people use alcohol to dampen the empty feeling they get from their working lives sits unpleasantly next to the way that Cub feels isolated by circumstances outside her control. This is not a kind novel and the small details that O’Grady uses to bring life to the drama are strongly realised and poignant.

A thousand small things combine to create a world where Cub is isolated by her age and by her gender and there is something about the whole that reminded me of Gothic fiction. Secrets are kept as a matter of course despite the fact that people know who to watch out for. It is never certain however in the end if Cassie or Ian, or both of them, are responsible for the sexual assaults on young girls in the town. Or someone else. In fact, there seems to be something about the town itself that makes you suspect every man.

When I was reading this book I imagined that the town where the story is set was Warwick, in the tablelands west of Brisbane. Brisbane is mentioned several times in the book and O’Grady grew up in regional Queensland. There was something about the house where Cub and Wally live, with the yellow house next door, that reminded me of the lonely houses on the New England Highway between Warwick and Cunninghams Gap, which is a pass through the mountains that cars and trucks use to get from the tablelands to the coastal plain where Brisbane is located.

As I said earlier, this is an impressive first novel one of the reasons for this is that the author manages to create credible characters and to avoid the tendency, that you find with a lot of politically engaged fiction, to reduce secondary characters to cardboard cutouts. The plenitude of the imagining involved here provides the strength that pulls the reader forward and lends the story its impact. 

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