Rachael King is an award-winning New Zealand novelist, and Magpie Hall is her second book. It follows Rosemary Summers, an amateur taxidermist and tattoo addict working on her thesis on the Victorian Gothic novel. After the death of her Grandfather Rosemary returns alone to Magpie Hall, a cold, isolated castle in the middle of the New Zealand countryside. She used to visit her Grandfather often as a child, but hasn’t been back as much as she should have. There are secrets in Magpie Hall, and ghosts. Her family is keen to renovate and move on. But Rosemary is taken with the history of the house and the legacy of her Great-Great-Grandfather, Henry Summers.
Rosemary inherited his taxidermy collection, a diverse assortment of exotic animals, butterflies, native birds and even a human foetus. As she moves deeper into the house and finds more clues about Henry her imagination gets the better of her. He was an avid collector of both animals and tattoos, and rumor has it he murdered his first wife, Dora. Her body was never found.
The story moves between the present day and diary-like entries from Dora and Henry, and both threads are equally fascinating. Rosemary is a mix of tradition and originality; as a Gothic heroine she is curious and fanciful, but also refreshingly modern and imperfect. She collects men like she collects tattoos, wears vintage clothing, curses, makes bad decisions and seems at times unsatisfied, almost depressed. She comes complete with a backlog of emotional issues, and her past is almost as tragic, though not quite as morbid, as her Victorian ancestors. I kept thinking something terrible had to happen to her. She seemed cursed, almost, as if nothing in her life ever quite worked out.
I loved the Gothic themes in Magpie Hall. The house, the secrets, the allusions to the literature, the suspense and the rising tension. Victorians and tattoos are two things I would have never put together, and it’s exciting to read about. Taboos usually are. Not only that, but the description of the landscape and animals is pure indulgence. So lovely to imagine. But then, at the same time, also slightly creepy. This is a classic Gothic trope, simultaneous repulsion and desire.
There’s something about Magpie Hall that gets under your skin. It’s not quite scary, but not quite normal. The result is a compelling, fast-paced read that is sure to impress.