Grappling, grappling, grappling. I am grappling with writing this review, and also I really like the word “grappling”. Most satisfactory.
So, let’s just dive right in, shall we? Magpie Hall tells the tale of Rosemary, grappling (appropriately) with the death of her grandfather, the writing of a thesis and a dying love affair with a married man. She returns to the family home of her grandfather, Magpie Hall, and from there we delve into her family history, including the stories of her great-great grandfather Henry and his first wife Dora, with added ghostiness and twistyturniness. (I continue my tradition of crap snyopses.)
There are many, many things to like about this novel. From a personal point of view – taxidermy, medical curiosities, a cabinet of curiosities – say no more, I’m sold. Beyond this:
- the writing is excellent, believable, highly readable and the research behind the technical and historical aspects shows, not in a flashy way but in a casual, immersion way. The descriptions of the characters’ emotional reactions to tattooing (for example) seemed very true-to-life (I only say seemed because I am not tattooed but it certainly married up with experiences that have been related to me);
- I loved the New Zealand background stuff, both the natural and cultural history. The little bits on our particularly rich bird life and it’s subsequent decimation were wonderful, as is the juxtaposition of the upper-class (“working” on the farm, balls, the Temperance and women’s suffrage movements) with the seamier side (the port, prostitution, the circus);
- the gothicky Victorian sensation feel of much of the story, the idea of a large, spooky, old house set in the New Zealand landscape, magpies (to quote Carpe Jugulum and TP “There are many rhymes about magpies, but none of them is very reliable because they are not the ones the magpies know themselves.” [what do you mean I can't keep bringing Terry up in unrelated posts?]);
- Henry and Dora – I really liked these two characters and their evolving story. I wanted more, but this isn’t that kind of book. Which leads me to…
My picky quibbles. I wanted more of Henry and Dora but there wasn’t more, and later it became clear why. I don’t think was a major plot point, but in case you don’t want to know any later plot points in the story, consider this a **spoiler warning**.
To continue, the realisation that Rosemary was writing the story of Dora and Henry was a let-down to me, rather than a revelation. It made sense within the novel and made clear that this was a story about Rosemary and what was going on inside her head and her exploration of herself and her family history, but I still felt slightly cheated and the reason for this was pretty obvious – I just didn’t really like Rosemary, as she is here. It was hard to find appeal in her character and whilst I don’t always have to like characters I do need to find appeal in them (positive or negative). The characters of Josh and Sam also came off as somewhat interchangeable in their descriptions and felt faint, hard for this reader to really grasp.
In the end, there seemed something being held back here – it never quite got to the point I really wanted it to go to as a reader, never quite pushed through. Hence my grappling, I think. I wanted to totally rave about this book (I’ll rave slightly about the design, I mean look at it - looooovely) but in the end I have to be honest in my reactions and, hopefully, thoughtful in my explanations, and say simply: It needed more.
Would I recommend this book? Oh, absolutely. I enjoyed Magpie Hall and the main feeling I have from my reading experience of it is that we will see a truly spectacular book from Rachael King – this just wasn’t quite that book.