Jul/Aug 2018  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Yellow House

Review by Ann Skea

The Yellow House.
Emily O'Grady.
Allen & Unwin. 2018. 314 pp.
ISBN 978 1 76063 285 4.

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.

Cub is a likeable, ordinary ten-year-old girl growing up on a rural Australian property next door to an abandoned cattle farm. She is still learning to make sense of the adult world, and she desperately wants a friend of her own other than her twin brother Wally, who, in any case, is starting to do "boy" things and doesn't always want her tagging along. So, when her aunt Helena and her 12-year-old cousin Tilly move back into their yellow house next door, she hopes Tilly will be that friend. For some reason this does not happen. Cub knows there is some secret—something Wally and her teenage brother Cassie know but keep from her. And she is determined to find out what it is.

Cub tells us of her probing curiosity and of her family's reactions to her insistent questions. She tells us, too, of her own feelings as she discovers more and more about the dark secrets haunting the family's past. Gradually, through the kids at school, through Cassie's creepy friend Ian (whom Cub vehemently dislikes) and, eventually, from her brothers, she learns her dead Graddadd Les had murdered a number of young women and buried their bodies on the farm.

Cub sees how her father tries to protect her from this knowledge, how he supports her mother, who is becoming increasingly distant and disturbed, and how he tries to understand Cassie, who, under the influence of Ian, is starting to be strange and secretive. Her feelings and emotions swing between curiosity, horror and self-protective indifference as she sees the family changing around her.

The Yellow House is a powerful novel about the legacies of a notorious, violent crime in a family and in a small rural community where everyone knows everyone else's business. Without referring to the old Biblical saying about the iniquities of the fathers being visited on the sons to the third and fourth generation, Emily O'Grady realistically shows the long-lasting effects such a crime has on Cub and her family. Curiosity, gossip, and suspicion still exist in the local community, some of whom ostracize everyone in the family, but because the crimes made national news, strangers also come from outside the area to ghoulishly try and see where it all took place.

How long does such a legacy last? How do those who were closest to the perpetrator deal with the horror? Cub's uncle drove his pick-up truck into the dam and drowned, but Cub discovers there are secrets there, too. Through Cub's delightfully natural and chatty account, we see how her strong personality and down-to-earth assessment of the people around her help her come to terms with her discoveries and with the ways in which her family is still affected by them.

The Yellow House, winner of the 2018 Australian/Vogel Literary Award, is a compelling and accomplished first novel.


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