Saturday, September 17, 2016

READING NOTES FOR NOVEL "FAMILY SKELETON"




FAMILY SKELETON     by   CARMEL BIRD
READING NOTES


ABOUT THE NOVEL
Told from the perspective of the observant and sometimes cynical skeleton in the closet, this novel of manners takes the reader into the emotional depths of the lives of a family of funeral directors in a wealthy Melbourne suburb. The patriarch is a charming and amusing philanderer, his wife is a virtuous philanthropist, his mistress is treated as a member of the family. But the sins of the past are about to surface, with catastrophic results. Dark and hilarious, dramatic and moving, Family Skeleton has been compared to the novels of Fay Weldon, Penelope Fitzgerald, Muriel Spark and Anne Tyler.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carmel Bird has always been in love with the music of language, the rhythms of speech, the possibilities of fiction. She has written thirty books, including nine other novels and six collections of short fiction.

COMMENTS
‘An intensely un-put-down-able novel with a rare pitch perfect ending. What a rich, delicious, suspenseful, witty, sinister, joyous confabulation, wow!’
JAN OWEN
‘Carmel Bird is a literary artist to her fingertips. She writes prose that has the precision of poetry, and that uncanny quality poetry has of making the inner life speak.’
PETER CRAVEN
‘One of Australia’s more prolific and renowned authors, Bird clearly hasn’t lost her enthusiasm and sense of wonder as she enters again the imaginative world of fiction.’
SUSAN MIDALIA

FOR DISCUSSION
 1. The Skeleton in the Closet speaks directly to the reader, commenting on the behaviour of the characters, and also telling the reader where to look, what not to bother about. What effect does this narrative device have on the telling of the story?

 2. Margaret’s life story is mostly revealed in her journal. Does having this intimate view of her give you a sympathy for her that you might not otherwise have had?

 3. Lillian is different from the other characters in many ways, and she is the central location of goodness in a messy, wicked world. In what ways is she different?

 4. The Second World War fractured the twentieth century. How did it affect Margaret? How did its ripples reach out into the lives of the O’Days of Toorak?

 5. You could say that Doria is ‘the stranger who rides into town’. What effect did she have on the lives of the other characters?

 6. Margaret thinks the past should remain past, even mysterious. Most of the other characters seem to want to explore and expose the past. Who do you think is right?

 7. The subject matter of the novel is dramatic and serious, yet much of the style of the writing is comic. How do you think these two elements work together? Does the comedy make the drama more memorable?

 8. The chapters are headed by a short quotation from Edmund. What effect do these sayings have on your reading of the novel?

 9. The novel ends in such a way that the reader is invited to complete the picture. Do you find this satisfactory, or would you prefer to be told what actually happened?

 10. What do you think it is that the Skeleton wants the reader to notice in the advertisement for the house sale on page six? When you get to the end of the novel, why not go back and re-read the ad.

  11. Next door to Bellevue is the Freud House where an eccentric psychoanalyst lives. What is the function of the Freud House in the overall meaning of the narrative?

 12. There are glancing references to matters such as the indigenous history of Australia, IVF, gays, the presence of the Chinese in contemporary Australia, incest, unmarried mothers, religious prejudice. How do such elements have a place in the tapestry of Margaret’s life?

 13. What is the role of children in this novel?

 14. The secret was bound to come out when Ophelia died. But without the presence of Doria, would Margaret have been able to bury that secret forever?

 15. What is the role of fate in this novel?

16. The Skeleton says to take no notice of such things as the butterflies in the story. He says they are meaningless. What do you think?








Thursday, July 28, 2016

REVIEW OF "FAMILY SKELETON" 
in
BOOKSELLER AND PUBLISHER

Carmel Bird is an incredibly distinctive writer who has earned a loyal following of fans in the . In Family Skeleton, she mixes acidic authorial asides with an intimate examination of the life and diaries of Margaret, the elderly matriarch of the O’Day family. The O’Day family has, for generations, been engaged in the lucrative funeral business, and Margaret presides over all of them from the window of her Toorak mansion. However, there are buried secrets in her backyard that she herself is not aware of, and when a visiting American relative arrives in town, she proceeds to dig them all up—much to Margaret’s consternation. Set in a not-too-distant future where funeral plots can be customised in a way that feels uncomfortably familiar, Family Skeleton will appeal to readers who enjoy the works of Margaret Atwood, Kate Grenville and Thomas Keneally. Bird is a writer fully in charge of her voice—its range, fluctuations and ironies—and Family Skeleton is a richly detailed and enjoyable examination of both the process of fashioning identity and the art of pulling it apart.








Saturday, July 16, 2016

FAMILY SKELETON - EXTRACT - PROLOGUE






FAMILY SKELETON


Prologue by the Storyteller


Imagine you have a talking skeleton in the wardrobe. That’s me. I still have my own teeth.
Once upon a time, in the years between the great wars, there was born a baby girl named Margaret.  This happened in the artistic atmosphere of Eltham in the shire of Nillumbik, twenty kilometres to the north-east of Melbourne. Margaret’s childhood was happy, although during some of it the whole world was at war for the second time. When Margaret grew up she married Edmund who was a very distant cousin, and she went to live in the wealthy atmosphere of Toorak in the city of Stonnington, five kilometres to the south-east of the Melbourne Town Hall. And lived happily ever after. You think so? There was happy and there was sad. Life’s like that. Even Cinderella died in the end. Margaret and Edmund had four children, and in the way of things, before he was quite seventy years old, Edmund died. So Margaret lived alone in the lovely old house built by Edmund’s father. She was known as a philanthropist and patron of the arts, and people from the news media would sometimes come round with various recording devices and would then tell stories about her and her good works and her pretty family life in Toorak. These stories didn’t get very far beneath the surface. How could she possibly be as good as she seemed? One morning she said to her faithful housekeeper, Lillian: ‘I think I’ll write my memoirs.’


Now we’re getting somewhere.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

FROM DEAR WRITER REVISITED

Writing students have sometimes told me they wish for a book that will not only provide advice about skills, but will somehow urge and inspire the reader to write and continue to write. I hope that Dear Writer Revisited will fulfill the students’ wishes and answer the needs of both new and experienced writers.
I believe that fiction writers find the material for fiction in their own memories of life - it's what their imaginations do with that material that characterises the fiction. Books, films, newspapers, television and so on give people a lot of information which acts as a sort of secondhand memory. This kind of material can be a source of inspiration, but when much of the content of the fiction is borrowed from this source, without passing through the particular medium of the writer's heart and imagination, the fiction can fail to engage the reader, can be dull and unconvincing. This is not a blunt exhortation to write in a simple-minded way about the facts you know while ignoring the possibilities of the things you don't know; rather I am suggesting that one of the finest and purest and most exciting and inventive and rewarding elements of the writing of fiction is the imagination of the writer. But the first field of the writer's enquiry actually is the writer. Find out who you are and what you know, and then more or less forget it – fly off wide of your own base. “The heart knows things, and so does the imagination. Thank God. If not for the heart and imagination, the world of fiction would be a pretty seedy place. It might not even exist at all.” Stephen King “The fiction arose out of the unconscious, coupled with observation but above all with imagination.” Daphne du Maurier Recently I was talking to a man who had been kind enough to send me a lot of research material for one of my books. During the conversation the man asked me how I was going to use the material. His question prompted me to come up with a useful and straightforward explanation – I said that I would read all the papers he had sent me, I would take some notes, then I would more or less forget the material and make stuff up. That would be the novel.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

NEW NOVEL EXTRACT "FAMILY SKELETON" DUE SEPTEMBER 2016 UWAP After the last game everybody gathered under the oak for lemonade and cakes. Somehow, it seemed to Sissy, everybody dissolved and she was suddenly alone again with Edmund. She had longed for this, and dreaded it too. The tingling feeling of the pleasure of Edmund’s touch filled her body and seemed to spin into her brain. She had to be back in the boarding house and ready for tea by six-thirty. There was a flutter of panic in her heart. But Edmund had this time-table well figured in his brain. We are after all dealing with Edmund here. Sissy would be back in time. But first they must explore the paths that went round to the outside door, the door to the wine cellar. Edmund produced a key, and in they went. The door was dark green. It was worn and dusty. Yes, it squeaked as it opened. The interior was dark as dark can be. They briefly roamed the gloomy passageways between the rows of bottles. He showed her wines from Bordeaux that were put down when he was born, that would be opened when he turned twenty-one. He grasped a dusty old bottle of brandy and swung it by the neck. She loved the sight of him doing that. And he showed her the door of the bomb-shelter. The bomb-shelter. Who had not heard of the legendary bomb-shelter in the O’Day house? Thirty-nine steps down, down down below the cellar. ‘Do you want to see? My family had it built at the beginning of the war. Excavated underneath the cellar. It’s like a really deep grave.’ He laughed. ‘Or an Egyptian tomb. Do you – want to see?’ His voice was careless, but with more than a hint of expectation and sexual excitement. Sissy lifted her face towards him, opened her eyes wide, slightly pursed her lips while smiling shyly, and nodded. Edmund kissed Sissy ever so lightly on the cheek. He was an artist in these matters. There was a steel bar on the outside of the door, placed there because the door had a habit of swinging open at inopportune times and hitting anyone who happened to be there for one reason or another. In truth, few people ever ventured into this remote part of the wine cellar. Edmund lifted the heavy bar and swung back the door, flicked on a light, and stood aside to let Sissy go in first. There were cobwebs, and dusty concrete steps leading down to the underground shelter. Then he followed, closing the door behind them. They were beautifully sealed off from the outside world of reality. Never mind the dangers inside the cellar. It was completely freezing down there, and Edmund plugged in an old electric radiator that had a centre like a beehive. It was in fact quite effective. This was Edmund’s special place, furnished with broken chairs and a sofa, glasses and ashtrays, everything faintly grimy and covered in a veil of dust. Three gas masks, like the heads of three terrible insects, hung from a hook high up on the wall. Sissy had heard of the cellar before, but nobody had ever described it to her. The walls were covered with maps of the world, resembling in their pastel colours, maps from the Bible. Empty shelves on one wall, a few comic books lying in a heap on the floor. An old stained sink with a tap. The air was stale, there being one tiny clogged-up ventilator high up near the ceiling. ‘A drink?’ he poured them generous glasses of brandy. Sissy was unused to drinking, and so Edmund watered it down for her. She gagged a little, then got used to it. They sat on a sofa and Edmund lit them each a cigarette. Sissy was quite accustomed to smoking, as it happened. They removed their shoes, and Sissy tucked her feet, still in her socks, up under the pleats of her tennis frock. Before long, naturally, they were lying on the sofa in an embrace. The perfect buttons in their perfect buttonholes placed by the deft needle of Daphne Feeney give way to the deft fingers of Edmund O’Day. And Sissy, her head beginning to spin with the brandy, became a lovely young creature in white socks, chaste white knickers, thick white bra, gold cross on slender chain around her throat. She still dimly remembered she was supposed to be a temple of the Holy Ghost, but her will was in fact, at this stage, growing very weak indeed. The bra and knickers were gone. She had never really been a particularly devout or religious girl, and right now her body was feeling simply glorious. She wanted more and more of the feeling Edmund aroused in her. More and more. She hardly even knew that Edmund was naked, then in a flash Edmund’s fingers were inside her, and the feeling was one of almost unbearable pleasure. He was above her. He took her hand and placed it on himself and she began to stroke him, quite softly, and he obviously liked that a lot. She was by now drifting in a little ecstasy of astonishment. He grinned and then he said quietly in her ear, ‘Turn over,’ and he gently rolled her onto her front. Her backside, remember, was one of her greatest attractions. ‘Kneel up,’ he whispered and then he pushed himself into her from behind, and in a few miraculous seconds of wonderfully sharp pain and a blissful flood of unknown warmth it was all over – with Sissy flat on her face on the sofa and Edmund lolling back, stretching out full length, obedient to cliché, lighting two cigarettes. If he, in those few minutes, hurt her, the pain was the pain of high pleasure. He took a long draw and exhaled, throwing back his head as he did so. Then he turned Sissy’s face towards him, kissed her lightly on both cheeks, and put the second cigarette between her lips. ‘There,’ he said. Then, ‘Oh-oh, there’s a bit of the old blood.’ He handed her a grubby towel. Cecilia stared in a kind of dumb horror at the sight of her own blood on the towel. She stared and stared. She was in fact beginning to feel ill. ‘It’s OK, it’s normal you know,’ Edmund said. Is it? Is this normal? Nothing was normal. Everything was shifting and spinning slowly. Sissy knew very little about the facts of life. ‘Here, have some water,’ and he handed her a glass of water that was still tainted with the brandy. There she was, a convent girl naked except for her socks and her gold cross, bleeding a little, sitting on an old leather sofa deep underground in a bomb-shelter, gulping down water from a dirty glass. Where to from here, Cecelia?