The Yellow House, the debut novel by Emily O’Grady was one of my favourite books of 2018. I adore child narrators if they’re done well and O’Grady was able to bring that balance of innocence and knowing to our 11 year old storyteller. I obviously wasn’t alone in my love for her work as the book won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award that year.
Her latest novel Feast is quite different. It (also) features a dysfunctional family and explores family and relationships, but felt darker… offering less hope and redemption.Feast
by Emily O'Grady
Published by Allen and Unwin
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
Alison is an actress who no longer acts, Patrick a musician past his prime. The eccentric couple live an isolated, debauched existence in an old manor house in Scotland, a few miles outside their village. That is, until Patrick's teenage daughter, Neve, flees Australia to spend a year abroad with her doting, if unreliable, father, and the stepmother she barely knows.
On the weekend of Neve's eighteenth birthday, her father insists on a special feast to mark her coming of age. Despite Neve's objections, her mother Shannon arrives in Scotland to join the celebrations. What none of them know is that Shannon has arrived with a hidden agenda that has the potential to shatter the delicate façade of the loving, if dysfunctional, family.
I was incredibly excited about this book given my love for The Yellow House. And seeing that I had also been quoted inside the book made a horrible day much better.
And I was immediately reminded of what I loved about O’Grady’s earlier work. Her writing is exquisite. Her phrasing weighty and full of nuance…
Her irritation is as gentle as a gland swelling, retreating. She hasn’t felt real anger in years. p 4
Feast reminded me of the movie (and play) Don’s Party, in which election-night drama unfolds in one evening. And I know I’ve read other books – including Michelle Prak’s The Rush recently that have been similar. The narrative itself spans just a couple of days. We only dip into the past through memories, so there’s a sense what’s unfolding is almost taking place in real time with we readers as voyeurs.
We learn (former actor) Alison’s become somewhat of a recluse, venturing from the house as little as possible. Avoiding people.
Though home is only a short walk past the woods and the stables, she’s hit with the inexplicable fear she has strayed too far and won’t be able to find her way back again. The illogical ache of homesickness, of feeling far from where she is safe. She closes her eyes and imagines herself suspended in a bubble of liquid, gummy and unthinking as a jellyfish. She tries to leave her body and hover above the feeling world, but her brain is hot and swollen, its weight gluing her to the earth. p 2
We eventually learn more about what transpired after Alison left acting, returning home to care for her mother. Which helps us understand the Alison we meet in the present. She’d become quite contented with her life and resents Neve’s intrusion. In many ways she also resents Patrick’s presence, referring to him at one point as something akin to an unpaid housekeeper, albeit one she’s attached to.
For example, when young, Alison believed her mother to be perfect but as her mother’s health deteriorated she seemingly lost respect for the woman she once revered. Though we see the impact it’s had on her life – and Alison’s forced to acknowledge it – there still didn’t appear to be any character growth. (And yes, I am overanalysing this!)
I kinda ‘engaged’ with Alison but ultimately didn’t really care that much about her. Or any of the other characters. Of course I realise authors have no responsibility to offer us likeable, charming or quirky characters. In fact perhaps it’s more realistic if those created by a writer are unlikeable or boringly bland as people can be in real life.
The nicest of the bunch is Shannon who’s travelled from Australia for her daughter’s birthday. The backcover blurb indicates she has some sinister purpose. The crime fiction / psychological thriller lover in me expected something macabre. And… though it’s kinda distasteful, for Shannon it’s an opportunity for closure rather than revenge.
This is paced well with personal demons and unspoken secrets all eventually revealed – if not interrogated. I was a smidge confused at the end, unsure if characters had made the decisions I’d hoped they would make, though perhaps O’Grady’s left it open for readers to interpret.
Although disappointed at the lack of redemptive arc, I still enjoyed this weighty read. O’Grady is an excellent storyteller and her writing a beautiful balance of light and shade.
Feast by Emily O’Grady was published by Allen & Unwin and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.