Monday, November 16, 2009
By Rachael King
Random House, $36.99
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino
I loved Rachael King’s first novel The Sound of Butterflies. To me it felt like she was breathing some much-needed fresh air through New Zealand’s literary scene and I waited eagerly for a follow up.
Magpie Hall is a curious book, as colourful as the tattoos that adorn the bodies of its main characters and yet very much in the dark gothic tradition. There are parallels with King’s debut novel – in particular the theme of greedy collectors of fauna and flora – but she’s not exactly repeating herself for this is a very different story.
The lead character is Rosemary Summers, a young woman in an unhappy place. Her beloved grandfather has died and she’s struggling to complete her thesis on the gothic Victorian novel. Walking out on the married man she’s been seeing, she returns to her rambling, historic family home, the Magpie Hall of the title, which is soon to be ripped apart and modernised.
Rosemary is no ordinary girl. She collects tattoos, is into taxidermy and is saddled with guilt over events in the family’s past. During the lonely days she spends at Magpie Hall the three separate things come together and long-buried secrets come to light.
This story is told mostly in alternate chapters: Rosemary’s modern-day experiences are counter-pointed with those of her great-great grandfather Henry Summers the original builder of Magpie Hall who was widowed in mysterious circumstances and was an obsessive collector, building up a cabinet of curiousities said to have driven him mad. But many things are far from what they seem as the reader eventually discovers.
King is a lovely writer. From her prose you can tell how much joy she takes in words. She has a light touch and a particular talent for evoking atmosphere. Magpie Hall itself becomes a forceful character in the story with its cold, sinister menagerie room and tower, its stuffed native birds and leering, malevolent magpies.
Much as I enjoyed the book I did feel as though it could have been longer – epic like the Victorian gothic works it references. King has created such a magical place and such strong characters I wanted to read more of them. While this is undoubtedly a good second novel (with gorgeous front cover artwork and design throughout) I still think the very best is yet to come from Rachael King.
Nicky Pellegrino, in addition to being a succcesful author of popular fiction, (her latest The Italian Wedding was published in May this year), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on 15 November.
SUPPLEMENTARY COMMENT FROM BOOKMAN BEATTIE:
I finished reading MAGPIE HALL on Saturday and read Nicky Pellegrino's review the next day in the Herald on Sunday.
I had made a few notes about the book as I read it but when I finished it I wrote in capitals - IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN LONGER, MUCH LONGER. I felt this partly because I regretted getting to the end of a fine novel but principally because I wanted to know much more about King's marvellous principal characters - Rosemary, Henry and Dora.
All three are such interesting folk and I reckon King missed a chance to really develop them fully. Also I needed more about the generations between Henry and Rosemary and their lives at Magpie Hall.
So I find myself in agreement with reviewer Nicky Pellegrino, it is a jolly fine read, beautifully crafted but I wanted more...............
As an aside I must add that the book is also a beautiful physical thing with cover design (outstanding) and artwork by Sarah Laing and text design by Laura Forlong.