Family Skeleton by Carmel Bird

I’ve yet to read a book by Carmel Bird that I haven’t enjoyed.

Family Skeleton by Carmel Bird

‘Imagine you have a talking skeleton in the wardrobe.  That’s me.  I still have my own teeth.’

Families have secrets: some more than others.  Some secrets might just be embarrassing, while others change lives.  And just imagine the stories a talking family skeleton could tell.

Meet Margaret O’Day.   An elderly and wealthy widow, living in a lovely home, Bellevue, in one of Melbourne’s wealthiest suburbs: Toorak.  Bellevue was built for the O’Day family back in 1933.  Edmund Rice O’Day, Margaret’s late husband, was a distant cousin: one of the ‘funeral’ O’Days, while Margaret was one of the ‘medical’ O’Days.  Edmund died in the arms of his mistress, no great surprise to Margaret, she always knew that he would never be as wonderful a man as her father, Killian O’Day.  Still, Edmund always made sure that Margaret had what she wanted, including a beautiful butterfly screen which had once graced the foyer of O’Day Funerals.

As the novel opens, Margaret is reflecting on her life, committing thoughts to paper in the form of a journal.  She is watching over her family: her four children, their partners and her grandchildren.

‘There’s something about facts – and lies for that matter – when they are written down, something real and permanent.’

The story unfolds, both through Margaret’s journal (The Book of Revelation) and the observations of the talking family skeleton.  The butterfly screen, known as the Zephyr screen, is both beautiful and macabre.  Beautiful Zephritis butterflies from Peru, killed for their beauty.  They have been matched, underside to underside, so that both sides of the screen are almost identical.  Margaret is drawn to the beauty of the screen even though she is aware (occasionally, at least) of how it was made.

Life moves on.  A distant cousin, Doria Fogelsong, arrives from the USA, determined to write a comprehensive O’Day family history.  Doria is present for the baptism of Margaret’s youngest granddaughter Ophelia. Ophelia?  Margaret is not happy with the choice of this name.  Margaret is also concerned that Doria’s research into the past is both unnecessary and unseemly.  Or are there secrets to be uncovered?

I love Ms Bird’s writing. In this novel, in fewer than 300 pages, she creates a family, a wealthy family with history, with foibles, with at least one family skeleton.    Each chapter opens with an epigraph attributed to Edmund O’Day, one of his remarks about death.  The description of the Zephyr screen has me caught between admiring its beauty and saddened by the way it was made.  Her descriptions of some of the people had me laughing out loud (possibly inappropriately at times) and wondering whether Doria or Margaret would prevail.  The talking family skeleton gives the reader so much more information than Margaret’s Book of Revelation, but the reader needs to be vigilant.  If only Doria could speak to the family skeleton!

‘And I’m not in the story anyway.  I know and I tell, but I don’t act, being the skeleton in the wardrobe, you understand.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith