Book Review / The Yellow House by Emily O’Grady

Amanda McLeod reviews The Yellow House by Emily O’Grady, winner of the 2018 The Australian/Vogel Literary Prize.

Ten-year-old Cub lives with her parents, her twin brother Wally, and her older brother Cassie beside a former cattle farm and knackery outside an Australian country town. Her family is ostracised for reasons she can’t understand, so Cub is buoyed by the possibility of a friend when estranged cousin Tilly and aunt Helena move into the abandoned yellow farmhouse next door. Their arrival brings already simmering tensions in the town to boiling point. As older brother Cassie is drawn away by his new friend Ian, Cub is confronted by the reality of what her granddad Les did at the yellow house, and the stain his crimes left on the whole family.

Debut novelist Emily O’Grady received the 2018 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for this polished work, which explores how the actions of violent criminals impact upon their families. The short but powerful prologue perfectly frames the context O’Grady wishes to explore without shattering the lens through which the story is told. Cub’s naïveté is captured perfectly; she watches her brothers use the community’s fear of her family’s history in the only way it advantages them without understanding why their actions are so effective. Her entire family manages their response to the historical trauma in different ways—Mum retreats mentally, Dad self-medicates with alcohol, Wally owns his position as an outsider and Cub resorts to mild self-harm. Older brother Cassie, seduced by Ian’s dark-tourist obsession with Les’s infamy, embraces the family’s horrific past. The story explores the question of how descendants are penalised for the actions of their forebears, and the impact of shame on families affected by violent crime. Loyalty also emerges throughout the narrative as characters wrestle with protecting each other from harsh truths. Each is forced to consider whether that loyalty is justified; and if it will ultimately result in salvation, or condemnation.

O’Grady maintains Cub’s voice steadily and the point of view stays tight. Cub misinterprets many of the things she describes in her narration, but the reader’s own capital keeps the meaning clear. The language is consistent with Cub’s youthful innocence and in some scenes the story is shaped as much by what remains unsaid as by the words on the page. This simplicity provides some relief against the intensity of the events that frame the background. By using a ten-year-old protagonist with no knowledge or understanding of her family’s violent past, O’Grady poignantly demonstrates how the echoes of history can potentially impact the innocent in myriad ways.

The Yellow House is an outstanding novel, haunting but with small glimpses of hope. O’Grady’s tale is an insightful reminder that one person’s unforgivable actions can result in many other silent victims suffering further under the weight of nothing more than unfortunate circumstance.

Amanda McLeod is a Canberra-based author and artist, with several short fiction works published in print and online. Find her on Twitter @AmandaMWrites.

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