Thursday, October 13, 2016



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.

Monday, October 3, 2016



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.  
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.

‘An intensely un-put-down-able novel with a rare pitch perfect ending. What a rich, delicious, suspenseful, witty, sinister, joyous confabulation, wow!’
‘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.’
‘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.’

8 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?
8  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?
8 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?
8 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?
8 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?
8 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?
8 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 8. The chapters are headed by a short quotation from Edmund. What effect do these sayings have on your reading of the novel?
8 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?
8 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.
8  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?
8 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?
8 13. What is the role of children in this novel?
8 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?
8 15. What is the role of fate in this novel?

816. 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?

Saturday, October 1, 2016


   Novel Family Skeleton reviewed by

         Peter Pierce
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.