Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 4, 2018

The Yellow House, by Emily O’Grady (2018 Vogel winner)

I am mystified by the preoccupation with crime that fills TV screens and bookshelves around the country.  We live in one of the safest countries in the world and yet if popular taste is anything to go by, we like to frighten ourselves with bogeymen, the nastier the better.  Which is why this year’s winner of the Vogel will probably do well once word gets out about it.

But although it’s a tale of rural crime, with tropes that are familiar even to people like me who don’t usually read crime of any variety, it is Vogel-worthy.  O’Grady writes beautifully, with striking visual imagery and her ‘sins of the father’ theme is interesting to consider.  (Especially to those of us who’ve read Zola and his Rougon-Macquart series based on his theories about inherited behaviours).

The book is narrated by one of my least favourite kinds of narrators, a child of ten.  Yes, this means that the reader shares the same limited viewpoint as the narrator, absolving the author from having to withhold aspects of the storyline in a more sophisticated way.  However in this case, there’s a point to it, because Cub (Coralie) is the grandchild of a mass-murderer, whose technique was vaguely reminiscent of the Snowtown murders in SA and the ones in the Balanglo Forest in NSW.  The discovery of his victims after his death has traumatised the next generation, with Cub’s parents and older sibling failing miserably to keep the story secret from the younger children.  Why anyone would think this possible in a country town where the entire family is shunned, I do not know.  But it does raise an interesting question: any of us would, of course, say that children are not accountable for the sins of their parents, but when is the right time to explain a grisly crime to them?  And if you are too poor to move away and make a fresh start, is there any possibility of redemption in an unforgiving town?

What happens is that Cub pieces together half-truths and half-baked theories about what happened and how she carries the evil within her.  Her family’s woeful lack of communication means that her questions aren’t answered and her misguided sense of loyalty means that she can’t tell what she does know.  And it turns out that Cub does know about her brother’s unhealthy activities with a very dubious friend called Ian…

I read a rather churlish review of this novel in The Saturday Paper, which took exception to the rural poverty that’s depicted.  I think this criticism says more about the reviewer than it does about the young author.  If you’ve been in outback Queensland, you’ll see poverty that seems quite shocking, enough to make one realise that poverty in cities is masked.  In a city, you can dress your kids in clothes filched from charity bins in different suburbs, so that the donors at your children’s school don’t recognise the clothes.  In a city, there are OpShops aplenty so you can buy enough crockery for when family comes to visit.  In a city there are free services to brighten your kids lives: story time in a library, free council concerts and festivals, a Grand Final parade or a Moomba event.  In a city there are charities which give out food parcels and toys at Christmastime.  And schools can be places of hope because the kids can see real opportunities for work and a better future.  Yes, there’s not enough of any of this, and yes, none should of it should be necessary in a rich country like Australia.

But poverty in outback Queensland is raw and inescapable when there’s no work to be had.  I will never forget the face of a woman I saw in a shop off the tourist trail: until a toddler came up and clutched at her shabby skirt I thought she was a grandmother because she looked so old and worn-out.  No wonder if that kind of hopelessness leads to despair and mental illness, and the statistics for rural suicide bear that out.  So I think there’s a place in our literature for novels that tell this story of inequity and hardship.  I really do.

But the Vogel being what it is, a valuable stepping-stone to a successful career as a writer, I hope that O’Grady doesn’t get bogged down in writing populist bestsellers about the dark side of life.  I’d like to see that beautiful writing enlisted in the service of thoughtful novels about other aspects of Australian life.

To see reviews of other novels which have won the Vogel, click here.

Author: Emily O’Grady
Title: The Yellow House
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2018
ISBN: 9781760632854
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this novel and I like your review, especially as it comes from a perspective that doesn’t relish crime fiction. I have an interview with Emily up on my blog today and she offers a lot of insight into her inspiration and Cub’s voice. I agree, it’s definitely prize worthy. I too don’t like child narrations and I think they are overdone, but I fell into this one surprisingly well.

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    • Yes, this is one we like in spite of ourselves! Off to see the interview now:)
      *pause* And here it is: https://theresasmithwrites.com/2018/06/04/in-conversation-with-emily-ogrady/
      It’s a bit depressing to see that she’s fascinated by serial killers and that she’s “drawn to the extreme nature of abject violence”…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Each to his own, I suppose! It’s not my area of interest although I will note that she’s done a great job of casting light onto a murky subject. I became interested without really trying (for the duration of the novel, at least).
        I agree with your comments on her depiction of poverty, it was very spot on. I have lived in remote areas more than regional for my entire life and there was much of the familiar within this novel.

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        • The other thing that was well-done was the voice of the child. I did get a bit tired of the squabbling among them, but it did feel authentic.

          Liked by 1 person

          • They were a tiresome family, but I agree, it did feel authentic. Kind of like they were all scrabbling to survive.

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  2. I will read this later when I finally get to read it in a few months!!

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  3. I agree with you about rural poverty. Was thinking about it driving around the back blocks of Bendigo last week. Some people live on rural acreage because it gives them room for a big house and a big garden and some do because all they can afford is a half acre with an old bus to live in and a 10 km drive to the shops.

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    • Yes. In some ways, it can be better. You can supplement an inadequate income with rabbiting and growing vegies, and kids aren’t constantly surrounded by things they can’t have. (Just walking through a city shopping mall with a teenager must be so hard…)
      But OTOH the services and the charities just aren’t there in rural areas.

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  4. This actually sounds like my sort of thing, but I’m drawn to these tales not because of the “extreme nature of abject violence” (shudder) but because I’m endlessly fascinated about what makes normally good people carry out abhorrent acts and whether those same people accept moral culpability for their actions. I don’t believe evil exists, because to blame evil seems like a massive cop out to me.

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    • Ah, well, this is not a book that does that. There’s no explanation at all for the mass murderer’s actions and #NoSpoilers there’s only the suggestion of bad company/bad influence to explain other actions. The book is really more about the fallout on other members of the family.

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  5. […] The Yellow House (Allen & Unwin) by Emily O’Grady, see my review […]

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  6. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book. […]

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