Family Skeleton by Carmel Bird

A review by Nalini Haynes

Margaret O’Day, matriarch of the Funeral Home O’Days, is in her seventies when a distant relative starts snooping around, researching the family tree. From the beginning Margaret is apprehensive, fearing this interloper will shatter the carefully cultivated public and private image of her family.

Regardless of whether the behaviour was decades ago, acts of people long-dead, Margaret wants to maintain the family’s respectable facade, which is all rather strange. In contrast, she embraced her deceased husband’s mistress Fiona and Fiona’s two boys even during the affair. Margaret ensures Fiona and her boys are part of the family, attending familial functions as equals. And yet there are secrets Margaret needs to keep…

The family skeleton — a figure in the family home — writes this story from its perspective while also using contrived excerpts from Margaret’s journal, adding in Edward’s (her deceased husband’s) quotes as epigraphs. The skeleton breaks the fourth wall while Margaret rambles and evades in her amateur memoir. Even in the privacy of her own journal she controls the truth.

The Family Skeleton is an unusual story with its rambling and non-chronological memoir-style, its tendency to tell instead of show but to do so using the skeleton’s and Margaret’s voices.

I was perplexed by the butterflies. The skeleton says they’re symbolic of sex and Margaret being ‘sex on legs’ but Edward seems to have chosen Margaret to wife for her Princess Diana demureness, her tolerance for his affairs. Margaret’s excessive sexual energy — if it existed — seems to have been channeled into familial manipulations.

The Family Skeleton‘s attraction for me is the unusual nature of the story: the aged central character with the focus not on domesticity but on impending doom. Family secrets have profound affects: one only has to read John Bradshaw’s self-help series on family dynamics to note the diverse impacts secrets have within the family system. Bird focuses on secrets — those kept from Margaret and those kept by Margaret — and their affect upon Margaret. The larger question — what happens later and how the shockwaves affect the rest of the family — is left up to the reader’s imagination.

I’ve taken a few weeks to ponder The Family Skeleton before writing a review and yet I’m struggling. I feel there are literary depths that evade me. A story for book clubs, The Family Skeleton will inspire discussion not only about the literary aspects of the novel but about families and secrets.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
ISBN: 9781742588902
Format: Paperback, 250 pages
Imprint: UWAP (UWA Publishing)
The family skeleton — dragonfly wings drape downwards over a pale blue background