Rosemary, a vintage-dress-wearing tattooed taxidermist, decides to spend some time in her family’s run-down old manor Magpie Hall – to work on her gothic literature thesis and simultaneously escape an affair with her supervisor. But there are plenty of distractions at Magpie Hall: memories of her recently deceased grandfather, her great-great-grandfather Henry’s cabinet of curiosities, and ghosts from the collected pasts of her family. Not to mention a good-looking farmhand.
But this novel doesn’t quite go where you think it will go. And this is a good thing. We peek into the past – of the collector and original taxidermist Henry, in the late 1800s. We also encounter repressed horrors in Rosemary’s own past – events that have made her who she is. There are delicious descriptions of the old house, built like a gothic castle; of the sea port and the tattooist in the old days; and of the specimens in the cabinet of curiosities. Some scenes stay with you purely for the power of their simple yet vivid description, such as when great-great-grandfather Henry skins a tiger.
The novel pays homage to the gothic tradition, with hints of romance, of dark and complex things, and certainly with a few spooky bits which get your hair standing on end. But by the ending the book becomes something else, something deeper. It is a bigger story, more meaningful than a simple ghost story or romance (though as addictive and enjoying as those). It’s about the sadness of loss (through not only death but homogeneity), but also how we romanticise the past. The book draws a needle to the skin of our nostalgic leanings. And as someone who was certainly drawn to the book for its lovely mix of dark, freaky, romantic, historical and natural – I was left feeling moved and a little bereft.
This is great stormy-weather cup-of-tea under-the-covers reading. I finished it over two days and every time I did something else I just wanted to get back to it. King has such skill in drawing the reader into that dusty old house and the skin of the people in it, and leaving just enough out in each scene that we want to come back (though we’re often not sure exactly what for). We want to know about the deaths, the hidden things, the meanings and the ultimate fate of it all. This is perfect holiday reading – especially for those always curious about the history of things (particularly if it’s a little dark) and those who feel a mysterious yearning for pasts in which they didn’t exist.
PS. Despite the success of King’s award-winning and internationally published The Sound of Butterflies, this (better, I thought) novel doesn’t seem to have been picked up yet in Australia, or anywhere outside New Zealand! I do hope Australian readers will still seek it out, I know many of you will enjoy it. Any interested publishers? Maybe try getting in touch with King through her website. She’s also on Twitter.