Rural misery is a mainstay of Australian fiction, and a genre beloved of (usually city-based) prize committees. It’s unsurprising, then, to find this year’s Vogel winner landing squarely in the category. But when a promising 26-year-old writer chooses to present the country in such a nihilistic fashion, the result is dispiriting. Why are urbane Australian writers so focused on unhappiness? Is it born of guilt at growing up in a kind of paradise?
Ten-year-old Cub lives on a rural property with her parents, her twin brother, Wally, and older brother, Cassie. Their dusty holding is straight out of a Steinbeck story. A former pig farm, the place has a notorious reputation. Cub’s grandfather Les abducted many young women, whom he raped, tortured and boiled, before burying their bones in the paddock. Although Cub is not aware of this at first, her grandfather’s actions mean the whole town hates her family. More worrying than local animosity is teenager Cassie’s unhealthy obsession with the knackery, encouraged by his despicable schoolfriend Ian. Together, they have their eyes on young cousin Tilly, who has moved, with her mother, into Les’s rundown old house. An injurious sexual relationship between the boys is hinted at, but never expanded on.
There are fascinating threads here, only partially explored, about inherited violence and the unjustness of punishing survivors for the sins of the departed. Unfortunately the complete absence of light renders the darkness cloying. The Yellow House is utterly depressing, and the sword of Damocles that hangs over certain characters is, once it falls, every bit as awful as predicted. And we know exactly what to expect from this genre – the wretchedness of rural murderers has been well covered in the media and fiction.
Another issue with the rural misery genre, and The Yellow House is particularly guilty of it, is in its depiction of the poor. Working-class, rural Australians are here once again portrayed as humourless dregs. The women are weeping, despondent victims without agency and the men are rapists, torturers, paedophiles and abusers. No one, not even the kids, has any redeeming qualities.
A reader unfamiliar with the local canon might, after sampling this bleak debut, believe this to be the worst place on Earth. Wallow in desolate fantasy if you must, but do remember that country Australia isn’t full of people trying to shove you in a barrel of acid. JD
Allen & Unwin, 324pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "Emily O’Grady, The Yellow House".
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