By Rachael King
Vintage Books/Random House 2009
Rosemary is a thesis student, part-time taxidermist and collector of tattoos. When her beloved grandfather dies, she travels to the family estate, Magpie Hall, in search of her inheritance, leaving behind a troubled relationship and hoping to clear her mind, and finish her thesis on Gothic Romance novels.
The house is haunted with the ghosts of her ancestors, and Rosemary is haunted by her own past, as she struggles to find the truth behind the tall tales at Magpie Hall. Rachael King's second novel is imaginative, and cleverly contrasts the present day through Rosemary's eyes, and also through the early New Zealand colonialism of her Great Grandfather Henry. The book is told from three perspectives Rosemary's, Henry's, also a taxidermist, and tattoo enthusiast, and his tragic wife Dora.
King creates a distinct blend of tension and fascination this novel is easy to read, and it is compelling in its peculiarities not in the least the novel within the novel. Rosemary unwittingly finds herself the heroine in her own neo-gothic story. There are interesting Jane Eyre madwoman in the attic parallels, and a couple of troubled and brooding men wandering about the place. Magpie Hall itself is perhaps the most convincing character in this novel King infuses it with a moody melancholy all of it's own. The momentum gathers in this novel, to a bittersweet conclusion.
There is plenty to like here especially the wonderful descriptions of the historical penchant for "collection" of flora and fauna. Certainly I found that Henry and Dora's passages cracked with historical accuracy and authentic tone. The often- assumed macabre nature of taxidermy is allowed a little grace in this novel, and King creates in Rosemary a compelling argument for life after death. The ghosts in this book ring with sadness, most especially the long-extinct Huia Bird. Magpie Hall has a great sense of atmosphere, and enough intrigue to keep you turning the pages, following in the footsteps of ghosts.