Emily O’Grady was awarded the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for her debut novel The Yellow House (Allen & Unwin Books 2018). The story is classified as ‘literary’ because of the emphasis on the development of the characters, and the use of beautiful, descriptive language, but it is also a story that is easy to read and accessible, all the more remarkable because it is narrated by ten-year-old Cub.
From the first pages, Cub’s voice is distinct and authentic. We can clearly picture her rather isolated life with her sad mum and her sometimes overbearing dad, with her older brother Cassie and her twin brother Wally. Early on, her cousin Tilly and her aunt Helena move next door, into the yellow house, where Cub’s grandfather Les used to live. Before. Before his terrible crimes as a serial killer were uncovered. Before he lured young women to the knackery and buried them in his paddock. But at the beginning of the story, Cub knows nothing of this history – all she knows is that she and her family are shunned by the locals, for reasons she cannot fathom, that her father can no longer find work painting houses, that her mother has disappeared into herself with grief and pain over the sins of her father, that curious onlookers drive by their house, and the yellow house next door, eager to spy some evidence of the horrific crimes that took place there years earlier.
This is a book about a murderer and the terrible effects of traumatic crimes. But where it differs is that it doesn’t focus on the victims, or even on the families of the victims, but instead it interrogates the family of the perpetrator, and examines what life might be like for the children and grandchildren of someone who has committed heinous acts, somebody who is infamous for their terrible deeds, someone who has left a legacy of secrets and pain.
One of the questions this book explores that I find particularly fascinating is: how do you mourn somebody from your family, somebody you ostensibly love, when they have committed unspeakable acts? How do you reconcile your perception of that person as you knew them BEFORE, when you now know what happened AFTERWARDS? The exploration of this issue is made more poignant by the fact that we are hearing the story from a child. Cub is of an age when, up until now, she has still been sheltered by her parents from gossip about her grandfather and his crimes. But as the story develops, her natural curiosity and pre-teen nosiness has her stumbling upon certain facts and guessing at others. We, the readers, discover things along with Cub, and so our interpretation of events is coloured by her ten-year-old self. And even though her grandfather, Les, died before she and her twin brother Wally were born, his shadow hovers over the family and darkens their reputation in the eyes of the local community.
There is a lot going on in The Yellow House. The relationship between the twins is nicely done, and quite different to how twins are usually portrayed. The divergence between the sexes – the girls versus the boys – is used by older characters as they dole out bits of information and hold back on others. The sense of place is very important in this novel and highlights the question of whether a place where atrocities have taken place can hold that trauma, in the soil, in the vegetation, and become a haunted and eerie space because of it. The isolation, loneliness and rejection of a family tainted by scandal is reflected through the ostracism by the community, regardless of the innocence of the remaining relatives. The development of the friendship between Cub’s older brother Cassie, and his friend Ian, provides a sinister point of conflict throughout the story – we feel subtly threatened by Ian’s presence, but can’t quite put our finger on why he makes us uneasy.
The language is simple – we see and hear and think things in the same way that ten-year-old Cub might. The dialogue is authentic. And the rising tension of the plot – the gradual uncovering of secrets and lies by Cub, her dawning realisation about what it all means – is suspenseful and compelling.
What sort of emotional bind are you placed in by the bad behaviour of someone you love? What is the legacy left behind? How is loyalty tested by betrayal? How does violence pass through generations? How strong are the ties of blood? What is the possibility of redemption? Without providing definitive answers, The Yellow House asks these questions and more, encouraging us to examine our own moral compass on these issues.