“There were two rumours surrounding my great- great-grandfather Henry Summers: one, that his cabinet of curiosities drove him mad; and, two, that he murdered his first wife.”
And so begins Rachael King’s rich and fascinating new ghost story with a difference, Magpie Hall.
Rosemary Summers returns to the home of her childhood holidays, Magpie Hall, to lick her wounds over a love affair gone sour and to finish her stalled master’s thesis on gothic novels. A collector of tattoos and taxidermy, Rosemary has always had a strong connection with the once great manor, now fallen into disrepair, which houses a past as sinister as the ever present, beady eyed magpies for which it is named.
With the passing of her beloved grandfather, the house’s eerie menagerie room is Rosemary’s inheritance. Little does she know, she is connected to its founder, the mysterious Henry Summers by more than just a common surname; it is with him the passion for taxidermy and tattooing began and has passed on, through the family, to her.
And both hold secrets.
The novel deftly glides between the two worlds; the strong and resourceful Rosemary in present day Canterbury and her dark and moody ancestor Henry and his society-girl wife Dora in colonial New Zealand.
King has the great knack of building the story up, layer by rich layer, making you never want to put the novel down. Her detail is sumptuous yet still written in a very easy to devour, accessible style; I particularly enjoyed the atmospheric descriptions of the brooding big house which dominates the story. Given its sometimes dark subject matter, the story is also tastefully handled and never macabre; even the most squeamish of readers will find themselves enjoying learning more about the twin arts that fascinate both Rosemary and Henry. And then there is the twist – when it comes it takes the story in a completely unexpected but most satisfying direction.
As if the writing wasn’t thrilling enough – the book itself is exquisitely presented as well, with eye catching cover art which keeps the theme of the book and a simple but elegant twin magpie motif adorning the beginning of each chapter.
Engrossing and beautiful, Magpie Hall by Rachael King is a worthy successor to her first Montana-winning novel The Sound of Butterflies. In fact I would not be at all surprised if Magpie Hall is an award winner itself – it certainly wins my award for best New Zealand novel in 2009.