CARMEL BIRD Family Skeleton. Reviewed by Kylie Mason
In Family Skeleton one of Australia’s most prolific and original authors delivers a tale of life-changing family secrets.
Margaret O’Day has always lived an ordered and beautiful life. She’s a beloved mother and grandmother and, as an enthusiastic volunteer and fundraiser, a true pillar of the community. She wouldn’t say her marriage to her husband, Edmund – now sadly deceased – was perfect, but Margaret believes living a good life requires the ability to be accommodating and forgiving, two virtues she has often had occasion to practise. And any unhappiness Edmund caused Margaret wasn’t entirely his fault; how could he live up to the great and glorious man who was her father, Killian O’Day? Edmund nevertheless made sure she had everything she wanted, like the butterfly screen that had stood for years in the foyer of the family business, O’Day Funerals:
A few feet behind her in the tapestry room stands a tall folding screen, known as the Zephyr screen, framing her mothly presence with its own eerie beauty … It is in five folding sections, eight feet high, made from a deep golden wood voluptuously carved, framing great panels of glass. Between the two pieces of glass are trapped the bodies of dozens of iridescent blue Zephritis butterflies from Peru, their giant wings spread and stilled. Each specimen is matched, underside to underside, with another, so that both sides of the screen are virtually identical … The patterns formed by the wings on the screen are mesmerising, the shimmer and unearthly glow of the colours, the sense of arrested flight. But the truth is that the insects are the stiff little bodies of dead things, creatures captured at the height of their beauty and bloom, trapped now between glass for the pleasure of their killers and admirers … Margaret sometimes formulates these thoughts as her gaze settles on the screen each day, but still she is drawn to the beauty. She delights in it, loves it, her eyes following the designs and patterns made by the insects under the glass.
Into Margaret’s steady and charming world rushes Doria Fogelsong, a distant cousin who is determined to write a comprehensive O’Day family history. And since Margaret and Edmund were themselves cousins, many times removed, who better than Margaret to help Doria flesh out the history? But Margaret isn’t so sure she wants this stranger digging into the family’s past. Not that she has anything to hide, it just feels so unseemly and unnecessary:
Doria comes to this story as a given, as a presence, and then as an absence. Margaret is the force up against which she is matched, and it’s Margaret, and who she was, that really matters here. It’s the cumulation of the events in Margaret’s life that are really going to converge and swallow Doria up … was Doria a nemesis? Was this how a nemesis worked? But Margaret had done no harm. Nothing for which she should be pursued and punished. She was only trying to do that thing people talk about, trying to ‘come to terms’ with the past.
Unfailingly imaginative, Bird lets a skeleton in a wardrobe – ‘I still have my own teeth’ – in Margaret’s house narrate the novel. Interspersed with the skeleton’s wry and often scalding narration are snippets from Margaret’s journal, in which she reveals herself as human after all, often just as lost and lonely – and as given to gossip – as anyone. It’s the skeleton who divulges the intricacies of the O’Day family, its joys, controversies and rivalries; Doria would probably kill to have a conversation with it. Margaret touches on a number of these things in her journal, too, though she is far less honest than the skeleton, even as she tells herself she’s being candid: ‘I sometimes astonish myself as I record all these things in my book, but the recording has, in the past few days, become a kind of comfort to me.’
As ever, Bird’s writing is lyrical and transporting. She vividly paints the privileged world Margaret inhabits and the past she has idealised, as well as gracefully exploring the nature of family, loyalty, spirituality and truth:
She lay down on her back under the trees, gazing up, trying to see as far as she could into the sky. For an instant, an instant that seemed to last for a very long time, Margaret realised she understood something very grand, something inexpressible. She seemed to know, for that fleeting moment, and yet forever, the meaning and the reason of things. She was unable to put this into words, unable even to form the thought, but for the rest of her life she carried the knowledge – or was it just a feeling – of the gift she received there above the river on the afternoon of the picnic.
Perhaps it’s this knowledge, bestowed upon eight-year-old Margaret, that enabled her to get on with life, to withstand the disappointments and betrayals growing up would bring. But Doria sits outside this fundamental understanding of Margaret’s, disrupting the peace she has dwelt in for years, and Bird has great fun exploring Doria’s meaning in the context of Margaret’s world. Family Skeleton is an enchanting examination of what happens when an inconceivable revelation makes the solid earth of a woman’s world crumble beneath her.
Carmel Bird Family Skeleton UWA Publishing 2016 PB 250pp $29.99
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.