4 stars “The road was like a liquorice strap, splitting the scrub and the hills in two. On the other side, plum trees sprung from the pale green mounds. Sometimes, in fire season, the mountains were hazy, the smoke from the grass fires curling into the sky in plumes, as if from little campsites on the hills. The sunset sparkled and everything was orange, everything was magic. But not that day. The sky was blue but dull, clouds a colourless blur. Nothing sparkled through the leaves. Nothing was orange.”
The Yellow House is the first novel by Australian author, Emily O’Grady. It is winner of the 2018 Australian/Vogel Literary Award. Ten-year-old Cub (almost eleven) lives with her family (mum, dad, Cassie and her twin brother, Wally) next to the yellow house. The yellow house is part of an abandoned farm with a knackery past the bottom paddock, the one Wally says is haunted. The yellow house is where Grandad Les used to live before he died, twelve years ago.
Cub’s only friend is her brother Wally: no-one at school will be her friend. Cub knows it’s because of what Grandad Les did, before they were even born. So when her Aunt Helena from the city to live there with her daughter, Cub is desperate for cousin Tilly to be her friend. “All I knew was that there was no way I was going to tell Tilly about Les. She’d never want to play with us again if she knew what we were really like, who we had inside of us. What kind of person our bones were made from.”
But Tilly goes to a different school and makes other friends. Meanwhile, Cub’s older brother has made himself a dangerous friend. Cub can feel it, instinctively knows Ian is trouble, but Cassie seems blind, overlooking Ian’s morbid fascination with their grandad’s crimes. When Cub stumbles upon evidence of misdeeds “I wished I could take this out of my brain and bury it in the dirt.”
O’Grady easily evokes the childhood innocence and the petty grievances that lead to shifting loyalties in early adolescence. With no friend to confide in, Cub conceals her feelings: “I made my face go blank. I could feel the prickles behind my eyes but I concentrated hard and kept them in.” O’Grady also vividly paints the country town with its ostracism of those deemed guilty by way of family ties.
“Even though I wanted to know as well, I knew this would be one of those things we’d all ignore. Another thing we weren’t allowed to talk about.” This novel clearly demonstrates the futility of attempting to withhold from the relentlessly curious child something which is public knowledge. All this is contained within some beautiful descriptive prose. A dark and powerful debut novel.