Book review: The Yellow House by Emily O’Grady

Sunday, June 10, 2018 Permalink

I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading The Yellow House by Emily O’Grady. I’d only heard good things about it and of course it won the 2018 The Australian / Vogel’s Literary Award earlier this year.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I finally opened it and felt that sensation of knowing I was reading something special. I’ve had similar reactions to a number of books told from a child’s point of view: The Eye of the Sheep by Sophie Laguna (and her subsequent book, The Choke) and Past The Shallows by Favel Parrett and Room by Emma Donoghue come to mind. Not to mention To Kill A Mockingbird, of course.

It’s not an easy thing to nail the voice of a child in a way that’s both authentic and alluring, but O’Grady does just that. From the get-go.

Book review: The Yellow House by Emily O’GradyThe Yellow House
by Emily O'Grady
Published by Allen & Unwin
on April 23rd 2018
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 9781760632854
Pages: 324

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.

This book is beautifully written. It’s a coming of age story in some ways – but involving less of the usual adolescence to adulthood angst – as Cub’s still very much a child. Rather she starts to mentally and emotionally separate from her twin Wally, brother Cassie and her parents. Not to mention the quintessential loss of innocence and awakening to the reality of the world outside.

My body felt drained. I kept grasping for something special and good and it kept getting yanked from me. Every time I got close, something else got in the way. I felt tears but they were stuck behind my eyes, burning. p 82

Cub and Wally haven’t really been kindred spirits in the way Cub thinks twins should (and could) be, rather they’ve been jointly ostracised and really have only had each other.

Wally is almost as unlikeable as Cub is likeable. Behaviour and personality-wise they’re almost polar opposites. (And I’m not sure most twins are like that… comprising a ‘whole’ or something.)

And then there’s Cassie with whom Cub has a strong connection. Until things start to change….

Before, I would have thought maybe he’d gone deaf for a second, but I know he was just choosing what to care about and he didn’t care much about what happened to me. p 221

We learn the family’s secrets quite early on (indeed the backcover blurb shares most), though Cub – given her tender years – takes a while to catch up. Once she realises what that underlying discomfort has been however, she’s aware when things start to disintegrate.

I knew something large and terrible had happened but I couldn’t quite feel it yet. p 135

Like recent releases by Anna Spargo Ryan, Sofie Laguna and Eliza Henry-Jones this book is about family and relationships, about loyalty and love. It’s about the reality that is life and the disappointment and lessons that accompany it. Like The Choke, there’s a strong sense of foreboding – that something terrible is going to happen and there’s nothing you (as a reader and observer) can do about it.

It’d be easy to feel despondent reading this book. But amidst that sense of hopelessness, there’s Cub. When we meet her she’s desperate for acceptance, and it feels profoundly unfair this young innocent child is saddled with the sins of her forbears and forced to seek forgiveness or redemption for their actions.

However… I like to think (as we leave her) she’s also starting to develop a resilience to battle the legacy she’s been bequeathed.

At least someone knew how to feel bad about something. At least someone knew to do something good to make up for whatever terrible thing they’d done. p 153

I should mention (like Jenny Ackland’s Little Gods) I was a teensy bit confused during a major element of the plot near the end which frustrated me a little bit (given I’m a lover of black/white with no grey), but it didn’t detract from my adoration for this book.

The Yellow House by Emily O’Grady was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


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