Family Skeleton is the ninth novel of Carmel Bird, this year’s winner of the Patrick White Award. It is, as you have probably guessed from the title, a novel of family secrets and scandals, told with Carmel Bird’s trademark wit and pizazz. What you probably haven’t guessed is that the narrator is the skeleton in the cupboard…
Actually, there are two narrators. Margaret O’Day is the matriarch of the family, living in comfortable widowed splendour in Toorak, and occasionally the subject of media interviews because of her philanthropic interests. One day she decides to write her memoirs, which alternate with the skeleton’s narrative, under the title ‘The Book of Revelation’ and an epigram from her dead husband’s memos to staff. These epigrams have a certain piquancy because Edmund ran the family funeral business (which looks suspiciously like a theme park for the dead). It’s known as O’Day Funerals and the epigrams include examples such as ‘My life is not as happy as it was, now I am dead.’
Edmund was a philanderer, dying in the arms of his mistress, but Margaret is long past any tension about that. Indeed, she includes Fiona and her two children in family gatherings, and in addition to paying for the boys’ education, she’s also made provision for them in the Will. Margaret, although a woman of scrupulous reputation herself, is not stuffy about anything much except good manners and the niceties of life in her mansion. She gets a little testy over naming rights of her grandchildren, however, but this is largely due to a mild case of superstition.
Or so the reader thinks. There is more to the naming of Ophelia Rose than meets the eye, and Doria Fogelsong on a family history quest from the US is determined to winkle out the family’s secrets. Margaret is equally determined to stymie Doria, initially just because she doesn’t like her, but subsequently because she becomes aware of a skeleton in the family cupboard that she is desperate to conceal. A paragon of tolerance, she is ok about all kinds of (a-hem) irregularities including the discovery of a convict in the family tree, but the betrayal she uncovers shakes her to the core.
Bird’s light touch makes this an amusing novel. Although Margaret does a bit of venting about family members she doesn’t like (notably her daughter-in-law Charmaine) her narrative is also about legacy-building (and therefore not to be believed in its entirety):
Thus, as a girl infatuated with her beau, I began a whirl of teenage courtship which lasted, not without some heartache, for nearly five years before we were married, six months after my twenty-first birthday. I would wait at home for Edmund to ring. How different it must be for girls now, with their mobiles always in their bags or under their pillows. Like most good Australian Catholic girls in 1957, I was a virgin bride, even though I did nursing, and life in the nurses’ home was quite wild at times. Girls used to tell me, and whisper behind my back, during those years that Edmund was still pursuing his romantic adventures in all kinds of other directions. I call them ‘romantic adventures’ but they were really pretty hot affairs. Rosemary Cotsford had a baby that she gave up for adoption, and people said that Edmund was almost certainly the father. She killed herself not long after. I chose not to listen to the gossip, but I was not stupid enough to think the story was not based in fact. (p.66)
Margaret, you see, used to read a lot of history and historical fiction, and was quite familiar with the idea of the royal mistresses…
The skeleton narrator has a more omniscient view and skewers the high status professionals of Margaret’s world with attention to detail:
In the picture-perfect office of Mr Charles Clark-Finn, solicitor.
It is on the second floor of a breathless handsome grey Victorian building in the city. Stone griffins decorate the columns at the silent entrance hall. The lawyer’s desk is broad and deep, mahogany, showing signs of the wear and tear of many years, but glowing as if with knowledge and confidence. One of those pieces of furniture about which you might say – if this desk could talk, such stories it could tell. Ha-ha! Mr Clark-Finn’s law books are sternly ranked behind the glass doors of the bookcases. Mr Clark-Finn himself is forty-five years old, fit and tanned and well draped in his charcoal Zegna suit and vermilion Dior tie. Handmade shirt from his man in Milan; hand-made shoes from his other man, in London. The socks by Paul Smith are his only little joke, but so comfortable. And handsome, too. yes, he is a hand-tooled mahogany and fine wool and silk and linen kind of man. (p.131)
The novel is deceptively quiet and slow-paced in the beginning, but gathers momentum towards the end, reaching a macabre conclusion that was entirely unexpected.
Author: Carmel Bird
Title: Family Skeleton
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2016
Source: personal library, purchased from Beaumaris Books, $29.99
Available from Fishpond:Family Skeleton