REVIEW: LYREBIRD HILL BY ANNA ROMER

LYREBIRD HILL

Author: Anna Romer
Simon & Schuster RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Lyrebird HillIf Thornwood House showed me that Anna Romer was an Australian writer to watch, Lyrebird Hill cemented her place in my must-read list. And she’s made me love my favourite genre, gothic fiction, even more, if that’s possible. It’s not easy to tie together two dual narratives, but Romer has nailed it, and I predict her name will soon be appearing in favourite author lists.

Most of the action takes place on a property in northern NSW called Lyrebird Hill. In the present-day, it is the home of Ruby’s childhood and one she returns to after a chance meeting with its current owner; In the past, it is the home of Ruby’s ancestors. The property harbours all its inhabitants’ secrets, but some of them are crying out for discovery. Ruby’s return to the property is the catalyst for the secrets to be uncovered and for wrongs to be made right.

Following the death of her sister, Jamie, Ruby has worked hard to have a normal life, one unshadowed (as much as possible) by tragedy. She’s blocked out memories of what happened the day Jamie died … and much of the following year. An invitation to her estranged mother’s latest art exhibition reunites Ruby with not only her mother, but also her memories, as the exhibition features the house and gardens of Lyrebird Hill. It’s at this exhibition that Ruby realises that her sister’s death was not an accident … and that buried deep in her mind, she has the answers. Ruby’s quest to unblock her memory leads her to another mystery connected to the property. I’ll let Anna’s words take over for a bit:

Inside the rotted material was a large rectangular tin. In it was an old Arnott’s biscuit tin, with a rosella on the lid. When I shook it, something slithered inside. Re-burying the tarpaulin, I filled the hole and carried the tin back to my spot on the verandah, bursting to know what it contained. A bundle of letters, tied with black ribbon. (p177)

The letters are old, written between 1898-1899, and addressed to Ruby’s grandfather. As with Thornwood House, the house of this story, becomes a character in its own right. As Ruby reads them, her excitement turns to puzzlement. The letters mention a woman – Brenna Whitby – that Ruby has never before heard of, and before long, everything Ruby has ever known about her life comes crashing down.

Ruby and Brenna’s dual stories are deftly interwoven, drawing the reader back and forth in time without a glitch. The mystery is multi-layered and complex – it’s not just about what happened to Jamie. Instead, it implies that the land and its owners may be cursed, that until wrongs are made right, the family will not be at peace. Lyrebird Hill is therefore a story of mystery, discovery, and redemption, with an atmosphere marked by tension, forbidden love, obsession, suspicion, cold, windy weather and “shadowy thing(s) that lurked ghostlike”. Along the way, it touches on Indigenous rights, women’s roles, the power of memory and the real-ness of the Aboriginal (and other) peoples’ connection to the land. The landscape and weather, as much as the house, and as much as the people, are characters in their own right, capable of evoking feelings such as fear, unease and wonder. As the wind blew, cold and gusty, I shivered; as the “silver moonlight drenched the hillside” I wondered what secrets that light would reveal.

Beautifully written, richly characterised and intricately plotted, Lyrebird Hill is one of those books that draws you in and doesn’t let go … I read it in one sitting. It captivated me, held me in its thrall, and at the end, left me with the deep contentment that comes from reading a really good book. I loved it and have only one more thing to say … Anna Romer, how fast can you write the next book?

Available from good bookstores. My copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Bookish treat: Enjoy this one with some cookies and a warm drink.