The Yellow House…
About the Book:
Even before I knew anything about Granddad Les, Wally and me sometimes dared each other to see how close to the knackery we could get. It was way out in the bottom paddock, and Dad had banned us from going further than the dam. Wally said it was because the whole paddock was haunted. He said he could see ghosts wisping in the grass like sheets blown from the washing line. But even then I knew for sure that was a lie.
Ten-year-old Cub lives with her parents, older brother Cassie, and twin brother Wally on a lonely property bordering an abandoned cattle farm and knackery. Their lives are shadowed by the infamous actions of her Granddad Les in his yellow weatherboard house, just over the fence. Although Les died twelve years ago, his notoriety has grown in Cub’s lifetime and the local community have ostracised the whole family. When Cub’s estranged aunt Helena and cousin Tilly move next door into the yellow house, the secrets the family want to keep buried begin to bubble to the surface. And having been kept in the dark about her grandfather’s crimes, Cub is now forced to come to terms with her family’s murky history. The Yellow House is a powerful novel about loyalty and betrayal; about the legacies of violence and the possibilities of redemption.
The 2018 winner of the prestigious literary award for an unpublished manuscript to an author under the age of 35 – the Australian/Vogel’s Literary award.
There’s an ugliness that simmers within the pages of The Yellow House, the kind of ugliness we all want to avoid and turn away from, yet at the very centre of this ugliness is a young girl on the cusp of adolescence, a girl who has grown up under the shadow of an evil legacy that she is only just becoming aware of. Her grandfather was a notorious serial killer who buried his bodies on the property that Cub’s family still live on. They are ostracised by association and up until her eleventh year, Cub is not aware of this legacy; her twin brother, older brother and father have all kept it from her; her mother hides from it and never speaks of it, never goes into town, and never does much of anything at all except wallow and neglect her children. This family is feral, I’ll mince no words about it, but the challenge here is to see past that, and to really examine how deep the stain of a criminal legacy really is. Can you ever rise above it or are you damned until generations have passed? A lot of guilt and shame is borne by these characters and it’s such a weight for young children to shoulder.
“I wasn’t sure why she was being so nice to me. She didn’t know anything about Les, I could tell. But she’d find out soon enough and, when she did, she’d treat us how we deserved to be treated.”
The novel is entirely from ten year old Cub’s perspective. She’s a great little busy body so we know a fair bit about what’s going on, but it is of course filtered through Cub’s limited understanding of many things. She’s only ten, and while she’s not stupid, there are some things that are so evil, and so big, that she is only just beginning to scratch the surface. Emily O’Grady has such a talent for clearly conveying the unstated, and the visual imagery that she injects into her writing just leaps from the page.
“I followed the path of pale, flattened grass until I reached the dam, and when the track disappeared I trod carefully and whipped through the grass with my hands, ripping up snatches with my fists. The knackery was at the bottom of the hill. It was the size of a small house, painted pale pink like the colour of marshmallows, and as I got close to it I started to get that sick feeling in my stomach. The mist had started to clear, the sun becoming buttery, but still I couldn’t help turning around to see if anyone was following me, though I knew I was all alone.”
The element of sustained dread is present throughout the entire novel. You just know that something bad is on the horizon, the threat is always there, pressing in and keeping you alert. Not only for the reader, but for Cub as well, and there was a seamless symmetry to what Cub was feeling and what I was feeling as I read about Cub. The entire novel was very well done, that ebb and flow of normal everyday life balanced against that which was not normal, and there was plenty of not normal in this family.
I mentioned above that the family was feral so I’ll spend some time elaborating on this. Were they feral because they lived under the shadow of the legacy of a serial killer or were they feral anyway, regardless of this? It’s a chicken and egg conundrum but it still weighed on my mind. There was clearly not much money, which would account for why they had never just packed up and left. It would have been impossible to sell up, notoriety has its limits, so they instead stayed and hid out. I have to insert one small, very minor quibble, more of a gross out, but seriously, people were just ‘spewing’ all the time in this family. It was a little overdone so that when there were moments when it could have had more impact, the effect was lost. Anyway, moving on. I had admiration for Colin, the father, who really was just trying to get through each day. He probably never planned to end up marrying the daughter of a serial killer; to have made that realisation and then gone to the police upon the discovery of evidence; that is a heavy burden. He could have deserted the family and started over, many probably would have in his place, but he stayed and did the best he could. Christine, the mother, is a different story. Clearly suffering mentally from the strain of finding out your father was a serial killer, she would have episodes where she would take to her bed. I understood this, and at first I sympathised. But over time we saw just how slovenly and neglectful of her children she really was. She was steeped in self-pity and I could see no way out of it for her. From the moment she pointed to her daughter and said that “youse kids have caused me nothing but pain”, I wanted to shake her and take her kids away from her. I hate, absolutely loathe women who blame their children for their problems, so she was lost to me. I kept hoping she would die, I kid you not, she was an absolute drain on the family and Colin would have been able to look after the kids so much better without her sucking up what was good out of him. Collectively though, there was not much parenting, and aside from the obvious physical neglect, it was the emotional scarring of this that broke my heart for all three of the children. Cub though, seemed to bear the burden of this. Because she was a girl? I’m not sure. Maybe because she was more capable, more intelligent. I don’t really know. Perhaps it was just perceived and not implied at all, but in the end, Cub felt it, and it therefore matters.
“Something prickled in the air. I didn’t know what was going on. I wanted to ask Dad where Cassie was but I couldn’t open my mouth, couldn’t speak. I was supposed to be watching him, only no one had told me that. No one had told me it was my job to look after him, and now Cassie was gone because I hadn’t done my job properly.”
For Cub, her twin Wally was always there, mostly to be endured, but it was expected that he was always on her side, and for the most part, he was. I thought Wally was a bit of a trooper, a canny little fellow who knew more than he let on and seemed to find out everything he needed to know without even trying. He was rough as guts but he was stamped as a survivor in a way his brother wasn’t. Cassie was the only one of the three who remembered his grandfather, and with affection too. The difficulty of that was not lost on me, and you could see how vulnerable this made him for those who seek association with notoriety, such as his ‘friend’ Ian. Cub idolised Cassie, and for the most part, it was a good relationship, although doomed, because Cassie had no way to live up to Cub’s high expectations of him. Wally’s relationship with Cassie was more grounded, a typical brother dynamic. What happened to Cassie was hard for Cub, he was the only member of her family she felt sure of, and it broke me a little to see her realise that he was not the person she wanted, and needed, him to be. Cub saw the writing on the wall with Ian and Cassie from the beginning, but her child status limited her from articulating, and fully understanding, what was really going on. Emily O’Grady was so precise in her narration of this, traversing with ease that often confusing terrain within childhood where one is grappling to make sense of their family and their place within it. I always felt the narrative was solidly within Cub’s capability and never out of her age range.
“I suddenly went from feeling embarrassed for him to afraid of him, which I’d never felt before…I hated him. Hated him for messing things up again. For being so weak.”
While I wouldn’t bill this novel as a coming of age story, there was a glimmer of this for Cub towards the end. She was smart enough to want to live a different life, and tough enough to know that she would have to do this alone.
“Every afternoon when I got home from school I spent ages on my homework, made sure my handwriting was perfect. I decided I was going to be the best in the class, so I could go to a school far away where no one knew me, where no one thought I was strange or that my blood was rotten.”
Cub’s growing self-awareness encompassed all that was around her and it evolved much like a bud blooming in the middle of a pile of manure. Yes, she was the grand-daughter of a serial killer, but that didn’t have to define her. Her mother had let it define her, as had her uncle and her older brother, and her cousin had paid the gravest price for it, but she was not going to let it break her. The implication of this was apparent and I rejoiced, knowing that this novel didn’t need a happy ending for me to see this future path for Cub. And this is where Emily O’Grady shines, in the way she implies beyond her words what you need to know. One sentence has a ripple effect extending beyond the page. She is a great new talent to the Australian literary scene and I have a sense of anticipation about her work, that it’s going to just go from strength to strength and I really can’t wait to see what she writes next.
The Yellow House is highly accessible literary fiction, perfect for fans of Little Gods and The Choke. The child narration hits a perfect note and balances the horror and evil that is present within the story. In examining the legacy of violence and crime within a family, it challenges the reader to examine their own conscience and perceptions about how far reaching guilt exactly is. Where does the line of guilt end? When does judgement stop? I’m still thinking about this novel and expect to be for some time.
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Yellow House for review.
About the Author:
Emily O’Grady was born in 1991 in Brisbane. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in, or are forthcoming in Review of Australian Fiction, Westerly, Australian Poetry Journal, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue Fiction Edition and Award Winning Australian Writing. In 2012 she won the QUT Undergraduate Writing Prize, and in 2013 she won the QUT Postgraduate Writing Prize. In 2017 she placed second in the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction, was shortlisted for the Queensland Premiers Young Publishers and Writers Award, and was longlisted for the Elizabeth Jolley Prize for Fiction. She co-edits Stilts Journal, and is currently completing a PhD in Creative Writing at Queensland University of Technology, where she also works as a Sessional Academic.
The Yellow House is published by Allen and Unwin and is available in paperback and eBook now.