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.
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.’
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.”
“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.
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?
MARILYN MONROE IN BENDIGO 2016
Victoria (1819 – 1901)
Mary (1842 – 1909)
Marilyn (1926 – 1962)
That would be Queen Victoria, Saint Mary McKillop, and Marilyn Monroe.
In 1903, a statue was erected in memory of Queen Victoria in the Australian city of Bendigo. This statue stands close to the main highway that runs through the city. In a line with this statue, and two minutes away by car, on the hillside in front of the eastern wall of the gothic cathedral of the Sacred Heart, stands a statue erected in memory of Australia’s first canonised saint, Mary McKillop. Mary was unveiled in 2014. These two statues are there for the long haul – they are part of the face and personality of the city. Between them, and in line with them, closer to Victoria than to Mary, stands a temporary statue representing Marilyn Monroe. She was erected in 2016. Majesty, Sanctity, Glamour.
It’s February 3rd 2016. I’m driving into Bendigo to have lunch with a friend. I have driven past Mary. I come to the traffic lights. Now these traffic lights are there for the management of roads that converge on a nineteenth century fountain, dedicated to Alexandra, daughter-in-law of Victoria. The roads are edged with a strangely motley collection of architectural styles – a nineteenth century ex-pub with graceful verandah and iron lace, an art deco facade, an art nouveau facade, a kind of blank wall that promises Aussie Cash, a brutal battleship-grey block resembling a penitentiary or a child’s construction of a fort cut from thick cardboard, and a triangle of delightful public garden, enclosed by tall graceful nineteenth century iron railings. Behind the railings on this day there are green lawns, a bed of orange canna lilies, a bed of pink, red, white and orange impatiens – bizzie lizzies. The traffic clogs its way around all this, and in the centre is the anachronistic fountain, surrounded by flower beds and iron railings and elegant lamps. There are figures of allegorical women, of lions, dolphins, mer-horses – and water sprays out of the mouths of some of these figures, ending up in a shallow pool at the bottom. In the mid-afternoon the arcs of water can catch the glinting light of the sun.
On this particular day, while I’m stopped at the lights, beside the fountain, I take a quick photo, from a bit of a distance, of the activity in the triangle of garden which is the entrance to Rosalind Park, the charming formal green centre of the city. Just where the Christmas tree lately stood, there is now a tall pale statue of a woman (it is immediately obvious that it is a representation of Marilyn). It is thirty-six feet (7.9 metres) tall, eight feet taller than the fountain. The area is roped off with tape like a crime scene. Men are climbing ladders that reach up between her legs and disappear under the great stiff white sail of her billowing dress. She was manufactured in New Jersey in 2011, was on display in Chicago, and has now travelled to replace the Bendigo Christmas tree. I wish I had been there to see her being swung into position.
Marilyn is made from painted stainless steel and aluminium, and she is an attempt to render in solid form the scene in The Seven-Year Itch (1955) where Marilyn stood over a subway vent which blew warm air up her pleated white skirt. In the movie, the scene was brief, amusing, tantalizing, and Marilyn was seen only from the front. She was laughing into the camera, and she was soft, her dress was soft and fluttering, and she was more or less life-size. She was sexy, vulnerable, endearing. The statue is a huge clumsy frozen giant-woman with a particularly ugly face that appears to be in pain. The skirt doesn’t move – well, it is a statue after all – and extends out and up like a verandah, revealing painted-on underpants with a modest lace edging. The bum is rounded, and the area between the legs disappears into a little fold of mystery. People constantly walk around beneath the statue of Marilyn, taking photos of themselves with various bits of her.
A few steps away stands Victoria. She is white marble, life-size, although taller than she was in real life, since she was but five feet, if that. She is elevated on a granite plinth with a bronze lion reclining at on the ground below her. She is recognizable as the pudgy, sulky, stern-faced monarch. In right hand she grasps the sceptre, but her left hand is open to release a dove. She is wearing long fancy regalia, medals and a tiny crown. She has her back to Marilyn, as would seem to be only right. And her legs are completely concealed by her marble clothing. In fact, she is in reality a block of solid marble onto the outside of which she has been fashioned. No bum. No knickers here. Anyway, who’s looking?
Back at the cathedral, Mary McKillop’s bronze face is strong, handsome and realistic. Imposing, somewhat larger than life I think. She is cloaked, almost shrouded in a flowing bronze cape and hood, reminding me of a Hollywood version of a medieval monk. She is backed by a slab of translucent green glassy panels – perhaps the material is Perspex. The front of the cloak, which flows lyrically down over the edge of the grey stone plinth, is open to reveal the body beneath. This body is remarkable. It is made from the same green glassy substance as the panels behind the figure, and it is hollow. So it is possible to see right inside the saint. Her green glass body resembles an old-fashioned Coca Cola bottle, and it contains a wooden crucifix that extends from the chin to the floor. Twisted around the crucifix is a tormented set of rosary beads that appear to be linked by sections of rusty fencing wire. The viewer sees right inside this one. No solid marble, no fancy pants. Just a hollow green Coke bottle holding crucifix and rosary.
Marilyn, the monster-woman between the queen and the saint, is in fact an advertisement for an exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery which is a few minutes’ walk up the hill from where she stands. You can see her dresses and all the rest, including her autopsy report, in glass cases. Victoria was a kind of advertisement for the British Empire, but by the time she made it to Bendigo, she was dead but the Empire was still going strong. Mary McKillop also is a kind of advertisement, poster-girl for the Catholic Church in Australia, canonised in 2008.
So there they are, a little variety of statues, strung out along the highway, two of them less interesting, less popular than the third, which will one day be replaced by a Christmas tree, having made heaps of cash for the Gallery and for Bendigo in general. I hope I am driving past when the men go up the ladders again to do whatever it is they have to do up there, when Marilyn has served her purpose.
VICTORIA TURNS AWAY