Novel Family Skeleton reviewed by
In the Sydney Morning Herald
September 30, 2016
The mordantly witty 'Family Skeleton', supposedly related from a wardrobe by one of them, is Carmel Bird's ninth novel, and as vibrant and off-beat as those that have happily gone before. The O'Day family, its fortune made as funeral directors, especially to Melbourne's rich, and latterly from the death-driven theme park Heavenly Days, lives in the mansion Bellevue, built for them in Toorak in 1933.
The patriarch, rakish Edmund Rice O'Day, has expired in the arms of his mistress. He is survived by Margaret, the distant cousin (a "medical" rather than a "funeral" O'Day) whom he married long ago. From the tapestry room in Bellevue, Margaret casts a cool eye on the generations of her family as they disport themselves in her gardens. Deep into her 70s, Margaret feels the not unpleasant compulsion to compose a journal-cum-memoir, The Book of Revelation.
The novel entwines the voices of the sardonic, presumably female skeleton narrator and the not always charitable observations Margaret writes of family and acquaintances, for instance of her daughter-in-law Charmaine, who "sprang from a diplomatic family that has been turned into a family of wealthy dry-cleaners". Charmaine's children now number four – Orson, Oriane, Orlando, and most recently Ophelia. This strikes her grandmother as an ill-omened name, which indeed it proves to be. For such fashion Peaches Geldof is blamed – "she had set the benchmark high".
Into this commotion arrives a distant, but determined and disruptive relative from the US, Dr Doria Fogelsong, who is writing an expansive history of the O'Days. Margaret is at once worried and alert: "Doria was the archetypal stranger who rides into town … the harbinger of fate." Doria will overhear the indiscretions of children, probe the meaning of old photographs and find time to give the quilt made in Van Diemen's Land by two female O'Day convict ancestors to the museum in Hobart. It is perhaps no surprise that one of Margaret's sons-in-law will suspect Doria of being a blackmailer.
Bird marshals a large and preening cast from Melbourne's professional ranks – psychiatrist, solicitor, bibulous poet who follows several real-life predecessors into death by drowning, gay parish priest and family doctor, besides "jolly fat aunts and mean skinny ones". Astringent fun is had in the portrayals of each of them, as we move between the dissecting gazes of the two women telling their parts of the story.
Family scandals are rehearsed – Edmund's philandering since his school days, the mystery of why his sister Marina interrupted a dance at Bellevue by jumping from the first floor – while for Margaret, the most shocking of them all is unexpectedly revealed. This is the metaphorical skeleton, so long unsuspected, at the heart of the novel.
Throughout, Bird's touch is light as she deploys the motifs of butterflies for weddings and funerals and the small brown suitcase that appears each year under the Christmas tree because "there are sad children somewhere"; imagines the daily epigraphs, his jocular remarks on death, that Edmund O'Day delivered each day for his employees.
As the narrative quickens to the climactic events of Margaret's last hours, Bird's tone darkens, but she never loses the wry response to the mess people haplessly and indulgently make of things.
The Family Skeleton maintains its energy and power of surprise literally to the last lines. This is one of Bird's most accomplished and enjoyable fictional escapades.
Peter Pierce is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature.