Although Emily O’Grady’s debut novel The yellow house won this year’s prestigious The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts by authors under 35, I wasn’t sure at first that I was going to like it. I think this was because I was feeling I’d read a surfeit of books this year about young people living challenging lives in rural settings – Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys (my review), Jenny Ackland’s Little gods (my review) and Sofie Laguna’s The choke (my review). I wasn’t sure this was going to have anything new to offer.
However, it wasn’t long before ten-year-old Cub’s voice got me in and I realised that this book had a different spin again, which is that it explores how families of violent or sociopathic criminals, like serial killers, cope in the long years after it all comes to light. It’s a coming-of-age story, in a way, but a very different one. Cub, then, is our narrator. She lives on a “lonely property bordering an abandoned cattle farm and knackery” (back blurb) with her twin bother Wally, her 17-year-old brother Cassie whom she adores, and her parents, Colin and Christine. Within sight of their home is “the yellow house” in which her maternal grandfather, Les, had lived. He had died two years before the Cub and Wally were born – and in the prologue we learn that he had been a serial murderer of young women. The prologue closes with a now wiser Cub telling us:
Now, I know everything he did trickled down and created us all, because it turned out he was the god of all our lives.
So we know at the beginning something that Cub doesn’t know when the narrative “really” starts. Why does O’Grady take this approach? I’m guessing it’s to focus us less on that plot. We know what Cub doesn’t know – or at least enough of it. We can therefore focus on how a family lives with this knowledge rather than on trying to work out, as Cub has to do, what the secret is. It makes Cub a perfect naive narrator: she has the curiosity and loyalty of a child but lacks the wisdom necessary to make the right calls. There’s an added complexity to Cub’s situation which increases her isolation: everyone else in the family knows, including her twin brother. Cub wasn’t told because she’s a girl. It’s no coincidence that she, Coralie, has a baby-ish nickname, while her twin brother doesn’t.
The novel proper starts when Cub is approaching 11 years old, and her aunt, Helena, and 11-and-a-half-year-old cousin, Tilly, move into the yellow house. Tilly’s father, Dermott, we’ve already been told, had driven his car into the dam some time ago and died. It is Helena and Tilly’s appearance which sparks the events that play out in the rest of the novel, events that are “driven” by that violent forbear whose “rotten blood” is in their veins, whose legacy they struggle to shake off.
It’s a horrifying novel. We realise early on that the family is ostracised by the community in which they live, and is struggling emotionally. Cub’s Dad does his best to keep them together but is ill-equipped for the challenge he faces, while her Mum also does her best in her own way, but regularly takes to her bed, with various malaises, many depression-based presumably. Cub and Wally have no other friends at school, something Cub doesn’t fully cotton on to, but we do:
The kids at school were strange; Wally and I played by ourselves at lunchtime, always paired up when we did partner work.
Cub is consequently desperate to make Tilly, so close in age, her friend:
I tried to think of something else to say. I knew we had one chance to make a good impression and I didn’t want to waste it. But the silence felt as deep as the dam, impossible to swim out of. I was annoyed at myself for not practising with the girls at school. I should’ve been prepared.
But, it never quite works. Tilly, dangerously – she’s too much like her mother, Cub’s Mum hints at one stage – is more interested in boys. And, there are boys – besides Wally. There’s Cassie, and his creepy friend Ian. Tilly, like Cub, doesn’t know the story of the “yellow house” and her mother is determined to keep it that way.
The story develops slowly, chillingly, and, it feels, inevitably, as the secrets, parental inadequacy, community prejudice and cold opportunism combine to result in … I’d like to say more, but perhaps should not spoil the plot.
This is not a novel in which everything is explained – as can be typical of naive narrator stories – but there seems to be a specific intention here. At least, I’d say that O’Grady’s aim is not to tease out all the possibilities and permutations of the situation, nor to follow the more usual crime fiction path of restoring order out of chaos. Instead, it’s to encourages us, at each point, to consider what might be happening, why it might be happening, and what might make (or have made) it happen differently. That gives the book a power that those more traditional crime novels don’t have.
Besides this open-endedness which kept me engaged and pondering throughout, there’s O’Grady’s writing. It’s not tricky. There’s quite a bit of dialogue and simple description of what’s going on, as you’d expect, rather than a lot of reflection, but O’Grady has some lovely turns of phrase. At one point Cub is near Cassie’s friend Ian:
Now that I was right up close to him I didn’t know what to do; it was like my brain was wrapped in sticky tape and I couldn’t think properly.
The language and imagery, as this example shows, are appropriate for Cub’s age. And there’s the “yellow house” itself. Yellow has so many connotations. It can suggest something warm, bright, cheery, hopeful, but is also the colour of cowardice and deceit, and can convey sickness. The contrast between these positive and negative meanings of the title underpin the novel’s horror.
Why read this novel? There’s the obvious reason that it explores a subject that many of us must wonder about when we hear of violent crimes – how does the wider family cope, what happens to them? And there’s the associated reason that in so doing it might encourage us to think more empathetically if we found such a family in our midst. But, besides that, it’s an engaging debut novel by a new young writer from whom we will hopefully hear more. It’s always exciting to be in there at the start.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.
(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)