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Carmel Bird, Family skeleton (Review)

April 13, 2017

Carmel Bird, Family skeletonI love a cheeky writer, and Carmel Bird must be the doyenne of cheeky writers, so it goes without saying, really, that I thoroughly enjoyed her latest novel Family Skeleton. The cheekiness starts with the epigraph, which, as she is wont to do, is a quote from her fictional character Carillo Mean. As Bird has said in an interview, “he always has something interesting to say”. But that’s just the start of the cheekiness. The story is narrated by “the skeleton in the wardrobe”. Now, I know many readers don’t like what they see as cute or contrived narratorial devices – like girls in heaven or dead babies – but please don’t let that put you off here, because in the hands of a skilled writer such a device can lift a story to a whole new level.

So, when I tell you that the novel’s framing idea is an obsession with family history, you might start to understand where our narrator comes in – except that the story is not really about the skeleton, whose identity is never divulged, nor is it about family history. What it’s about, really, is family secrets and betrayal, and the tipping point. It’s about the recently bereaved and well-to-do Margaret O’Day, whose family, through her husband, has been involved in the funeral business for generations. Such a setting is, of course, ripe for black comedy and that’s what we get in this novel. But, back to Margaret. Her husband Eddie, “a philistine” according to our skeleton, was also a philanderer and died in the arms of his mistress. Margaret had been betrayed – more than once, in fact – but she knew this, and even accepted this last mistress, and her children with Eddie, at the funeral.

From this set up, the story progresses, mostly chronologically but with a couple of significant time-shifts along the way. It is mainly told by our omniscient skeleton, but Margaret starts a journal, which she calls – hmm, note this – “The Book of Revelation”. Her entries in it form some of the book’s chapters. This title, “The Book of Revelation”, is another of Bird’s jokes, for the novel is about things revealed and not revealed – particularly the latter, because as the story progresses Margaret discovers an even bigger betrayal than her husband’s, and she is desperate to hide it from visiting O’Day family historian Doria Fogelsong.

The novel, then, as I said, is about secrets and betrayals. For the “virtuous” Margaret, who has put up with much throughout her marriage and who has become very good at “concealing her true feelings from people”, this lately discovered betrayal is the last straw. It takes all her resources to keep going. The family history motif compounds the tension. Will the story come out? Will Margaret be able to keep Doria (“with her iPhone on her left, iPad on her right”) from finding it out.

There’s satire here, surely, on the current obsession with family history. Our skeleton tells us

I happen to know that one of the little violinists was the son of Eddie O’Day and a gorgeous Hungarian dress-designer. Evan didn’t realise that, not that it makes any difference to anything, although it is a nice detail for a family tree. Doria missed out there.

So cheeky, these little jibes dropped in. Bird also skewers fashions in family history – such as how it is now a positive thing to uncover a convict or an Indigenous ancestor – while also exposing its underbelly, that is, the pain discovery can cause. The obvious question, of course, is whether it is better to know the truth or not.

However, it’s not only family history which catches Bird’s eye, but the pretensions and self-absorption of contemporary middle-class life, from designer clothes to electronic devices, from shallow parties to theme park cemeteries. It’s all here, providing background to the main fare.

But there’s more to the novel too, because it is also about writing and reading fiction, a storytelling masterclass in a way. The skeleton does more than narrate. S/he engages with the reader, reminding us of things we’ve already read, making sure we are keeping up with any plot hints or twists. Oh, how I loved this. I felt Bird was right there, having fun, playing games with us, while at the same time teaching us about how writers write and, more significantly, how we should read. Early on, for example, our skeleton presents us with a future auction advertisement for Margaret’s house, Bellevue, and says:

I realise that the eye of the reader can easily slide carelessly across such elements of the text. However, I suggest you take your time and study this document carefully.

The joke, though, is on us because at this stage in the story we have no idea what “secrets” are contained within. (At least, that’s my reading of what Bird is doing.) At another point, after telling us that “nothing bad ever happened at Bellevue these days”, the skeleton teases us with, “I trust you are alert enough to hear a faint bell ringing”.

Bird also plays with the archetypes of popular fiction – the betrayed wife, the philandering husband, and “the archetypal stranger who rides into town … the harbinger of fate” – but she gently subverts our expectations. The betrayal that most disturbs Margaret is not her husband’s, and it’s not Doria, the stranger, who brings the news that so distresses Margaret, albeit, given Margaret’s discovery, Doria can certainly ramp up the pain.

And then there’s the writing, with its gorgeous descriptions, pert sentences, delicious irony, entertaining word-plays and its smart, cheeky tone which leaves you in no doubt about who or what is being targeted but is good-humoured rather than bitter. Here is Margaret preparing to have Doria for lunch:

When Margaret asked for just a plain omelette, Lillian [her housekeeper] understood that the guest was someone who gave Margaret no joy, and who was to be more controlled than entertained. It was control by omelette. A sliver here, a sliver there, and a quiet soft squashing with the tongue against the palate. Desultory conversation, meaningless smiles. Plain omelette.

What more can I say? Family skeleton delights on so many levels. It is in fact quite a shocking story, but one told with a spoonful of sugar that has just the right amount of spice. I can’t help thinking that Bird chuckled and chuckled as she wrote it. I certainly did reading it.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the novel.

aww2017 badgeCarmel Bird
Family skeleton
Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2016
228pp.
ISBN: 9781742588902

21 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2017 4:33 pm

    I adore pretty much everything written by Carmel Bird and, yes, her irony is certainly “delicious”! Sometimes I wonder if Bird is sitting on window sills, listening to the goings on within.

  2. April 14, 2017 12:15 am

    Thanks Gummie: I’m putting this one on the list.
    (Thought of one: Brighton Rock)

  3. April 14, 2017 2:42 pm

    I have of late stopped acquiring books. But then you tempt me to read this one. I am intrigued by the ploy of a family skeleton raising a story to a great level. The symbol of plain omelette also struck a chord.

    • April 15, 2017 12:34 am

      I know what you mean umashankar about not buying books, but this one is worthy I think! If you’re going to buy books it’s best to buy books by underappreciated writers published by small independent publishers which I reckon is what the University of Western Australia press is.

      I’m so glad you liked the “plain omelette” quote.

  4. April 18, 2017 6:54 am

    Oh this sounds delicious! Plus, have I mentioned how much I love the author’s name? My library has her book The Bluebird Cafe, have you read that one?

  5. NeilAtKallaroo permalink
    April 18, 2017 10:49 pm

    Inspired by your review I purchased the ebook, which I have now read. Your review has nailed the book nicely. Oddly enough, my next book, “The chalk pit”, by Elly Griffiths, has a similar feel to it, with a narrator filling in the cracks, as it were (though the narrator in this case is the author rather than a distinct character).

    Most enjoyable. Thank you, Gums.

    • April 19, 2017 7:58 am

      Thanks Neil, that’s wonderful that you bought the book AND liked it. Bird is so delightful to read. I love too that you saw a similarity with your next book. It’s interesting how often that happens, shows our readerly brains are on the ball I think.

  6. NeilAtKallaroo permalink
    July 18, 2017 6:28 pm

    We discussed Family Skeleton at our book club last night (my selection).

    To start the discussion, I got everyone to describe the book in six words or less (position drawn at random), and no discussion entered into until everyone had had their say. I was looking for a phrase, but people came up with word lists, like “Deep dark digging depressing dirgelike doom”. Then I quizzed one member on their “meandering” comment, and the discussion went from there.

    We spent a solid hour chatting about the book, and I only injected one more prompt, so I think we can say it was a success.

    And I quizzed our resident magistrate on Margaret’s action. Hmm. Yes, perhaps a murder charge could be brought! (I’m trying to avoid spoilers.)

    There was also discussion about Edmund’s motive for marrying Margaret, how aware Margaret was of the situation, and who was the skeleton! No definitive answers were arrived at, but the robust discussion was enjoyed by all.

    Once again, Gums, thanks. A great book.

    • July 19, 2017 9:35 am

      That sound great Neil, and I like your idea of asking every one to say 6 words or less without discussion. We usually go round the room, asking for responses without discussion, but some will talk for quite a bit and then discussion starts and we have to pull it back. Limiting it to 6 words is a good way of honing in. Did anyone say satirical or witty?

      • NeilAtKallaroo permalink
        July 20, 2017 10:33 am

        No. Acouple of “quirky”s. In the following discussion, the wit was acknowledged, but no mention of satire.

        • July 21, 2017 2:17 am

          That’s interesting, Neil. I felt the satire stood out.

        • NeilAtKallaroo permalink
          July 24, 2017 6:52 pm

          Agreed – I just checked the definition of satire 😊 We’re not big on talking about the story itself. Tend to latch onto discussing particular characters and their foibles.

        • July 25, 2017 12:21 am

          Haha Neil, I understand your shipping that. I sometimes get nervous about using the term. Am glad you agree.

          I think talking about characters is often the easiest thing to do, and is what most readers seem to talk about when they talk about books. It can result in something that frustrates me which is when people say they didn’t like a book because they didn’t like the characters. Their right to say this of course 😊 and I understand it to a degree, but… A question I usually ask myself and often ask in reading group is “why do you think the author wrote this book?” It can be a hard question, but can turn discussion to other ideas.

        • NeilAtKallaroo permalink
          July 25, 2017 6:56 pm

          Love it! “Why do you think the author write this book?” Excellent question.

          I like to ask questions about the structure of the book, because this also moves discussion beyond characters.

          I must admit I have read books where the writing was brilliant, the plot crystal clear, the characters well defined, but I’ve hated the book, because of what it is about. A bit like yesterday, when I started reading Helen Garner’s “The Spare Room”. I’m afraid the topic, someone dying of cancer, is a bit close to the bone, I had to stop after twenty pages. Gillian got me on to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Much easier to read. (We’re sussing it out as her selection for book club.)

        • July 26, 2017 12:30 am

          Oh yes Neil, I love to talk about structure too, though don’t always ask about it at reading group. It can have a big impact on meaning.

          I take your point re other reasons for not liking books. I did like The spare room, but not for every one clearly.

          I almost never recommend books for reading group that I’ve read! I recommend books I WANT to read. But I understand why some people, including some in our group, do it the other way.

        • NeilAtKallaroo permalink
          July 26, 2017 6:05 pm

          I’m not sure I want the risk of a book I haven’t read. Got one of those in the book club, very dour offering. But it does make for more excitement, and the advantage that the book is fresh for everybody. One day I’ll get game enough. (We ditched “Bookstore”. Got a bit Dan Brownie. Stretched the credulity too much. Pity. It was easy to read.)

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