‘Imagine you have a talking skeleton in the wardrobe. That’s me. I still have my own teeth.’
We all have skeletons in our closet – secrets we’d rather keep hidden, locked away out of sight to gather dust and be forgotten. In Carmel Bird’s Family Skeleton, the pile of bones locked away in the closet is, in fact, the narrator of the story – and it makes for an extraordinary reading experience.
Margaret, widow of Edmund O’Day of O’Day Funerals, is the family matriarch – she watches over everyone with a careful eye, ensuring that things are always running smoothly, that everything and everyone is in their place.
But even Margaret can’t control what happens when an American relative pays a visit, and begins to ask questions about the family’s history. Having worked in the funeral business for so long, Margaret was certain everything had been buried, never to be unearthed again. But you can’t dig a grave without disturbing the smooth surface of the ground…
Family Skeleton is a remarkable tale of family secrets, betrayal, and the ties that bind us. The story is told from both the perspective of Margaret (as she journals about her life in her ‘Book of Revelation’), and the talking family skeleton. These dual perspectives within the novel create a unique reading experience as you shift between the ‘real-life’ thoughts of Margaret, and the magic surrealism of the skeleton’s narration.
It’s important to note that magical surrealism in a novel is no small feat, and that it’s very easy to risk being cliched when selecting a skeleton as a narrator. Carmel however writes with such intelligence and skill that you do not ever question her unique choice of storyteller. Not only a narrator, the skeleton serves as an important symbol within the novel – that secrets have a life of their own, that nothing is ever truly hidden, and that what has been done can never be undone, not even through death.
Those of you who are familiar with Carmel’s previous works will know that she has a remarkable gift for both character and dialogue. With her lyrical and musical prose, Carmel weaves a detailed, intricate tapestry of character stories and histories that overlap, entangle, and fuse. Individually, each member of the family is interesting and remarkable, however it is the ways in which they are connected, the finer details that make these characters truly three dimensional.
This book is undoubtedly experimental. Exploring themes of death and dishonesty, Family Skeleton carries a dark humour throughout that not only grips you but also teaches you little life lessons along the way – such as, nothing is ever as it seems on the surface, and that the past can’t ever truly be buried, because the present moment is constructed from all that came before.
From the 2016 winner of the Patrick White Award, Family Skeleton is a read that will challenge you (and have you checking your own closets for a skeleton or two). A 2018 must-read.
About the Author:
Carmel Bird is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her first collection of short stories appeared in 1976. Since then she has published novels, essays, anthologies, children’s books and also manuals on how to write.