Canterbury gothic

by Ruth Nichol / 31 October, 2009
Rachael King follows her award-winning <i>The Sound of Butterflies</i> with a second novel full of taxidermy, tattoos and allusions to Victorian literature.

Observant readers - or at least those familiar with the works of the Brontë sisters - will enjoy the literary allusions in Rachael King's second novel, Magpie Hall.

At one point, a brooding farmhand spies on the Summers family through the windows of Magpie Hall, "a miniature Gothic castle transplanted to the New Zealand landscape", in much the same way that Heathcliff spies on the Linton family in Wuthering Heights.

Earlier in the novel, Magpie Hall's first owner, 19th-century remittance man Henry Summers, asks Dora Collins, the woman he will eventually marry: "Do you think me handsome?" The question and Dora's reply - "No, sir" - come straight from the pages of Jane Eyre.

So, too, does the fate that befalls Dora's "beloved chestnut tree", albeit with a Kiwi twist. Rather than being split in two by lightning, as the chestnut tree is in Charlotte Brontë's novel, Dora's tree is split in two by the 1888 Canterbury earthquake.

Jane Austen gets a look-in, too, when Rosemary Summers - Henry's great-great-granddaughter - suffers from frightening visions brought on by reading too many gothic novels. Austen scholars will spot the similarity to Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey.

Even the novel's title, Magpie Hall, echoes the titles of 19th-century classics such as Wuthering Heights, Bleak House and Mansfield Park.

"Using the name of the house as the title of the book was a nice way of linking a basically contemporary novel to that literary tradition," explains King.

Fortunately, even those of us who don't have a working knowledge of Victorian literature can still enjoy Magpie Hall, a successor to King's The Sound of Butterflies, which won the Best First Book Award for Fiction at the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards and has been published in nine countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom.

With its racy mix of themes - taxidermy, tattoos, gothic novels, cabinets of curiosities, old country houses and ghosts - combined with a couple of mysteries and a good dollop of sex, Magpie Hall romps along at a thoroughly entertaining pace.

However, although reading it is easy, writing it was anything but. King admits she had to work a lot harder to produce her second novel - which she finished just before her second child was born in August - than she did her first.

"I thought about this book so much more than that last one," she says. "The story for The Sound of Butterflies came fully formed. But for this one I thought and thought. It was much more theme-driven - the story came out of the themes. I kept going off on tangents, as I did more research.

"I had times when I didn't write a word for as long as two months, and I thought I was just wasting time. But as it turned out my subconscious was doing the work for me, and eventually everything started to fall into place."

Even the title presented problems. King came up with a number of possibilities before settling on Magpie Hall. "I really struggled with the title - I was really desperate for a while. First of all, I was going to call it The Memory of Skin, because one of the big themes is remembrance, and it's about tattoos and taxidermy, which are both about skin. But that seemed a bit twee. Then I thought of The Collectors, but my father [historian Michael King] wrote a book called The Collector, so I didn't want to call it that."

The problem was solved when, after finishing her first draft, King finally thought of a name for the house that has been home to the Summers family for more than a century.

In hindsight, it was an obvious choice; magpies have been a presence at Magpie Hall since Henry Summers built the house for his first wife, Dora, in 1888. Dora died in mysterious circumstances a few years later, and her body was never found.

The magpies terrorise Rosemary Summers on childhood visits to Magpie Hall. In one scene, she and her siblings set off for the river wearing ice cream containers on their heads with eyes painted on the tops to ward off the marauding birds. Later, the adult Rosemary is attacked by a group of magpies while she's out ?walking.

Rosemary, a much-tattooed academic and amateur taxidermist, has returned to Magpie Hall after the death of her grandfather, intending to finish writing her thesis on the Victorian gothic novel.

She also wants to check out her inheritance, a large collection of stuffed exotic and native birds and animals - including a huia - as well as trays full of butterflies and beetles from Africa, Australia and Brazil.

Most were collected and stuffed by Henry Summers, who passed his taxidermy skills on to his grandson, Rosemary's beloved Granpa, who then passed them on to her.

The collection includes more than just birds and animals. It also features Victorian-style curiosities: a human fetus, a pair of baby's feet.

Alone in the house with only Henry's taxidermy collection for company, Rosemary's imagination starts to work overtime. When she learns that Henry, too, was extensively tattooed, she finds herself constructing and writing an elaborately gothic story about what happened to him - and to Dora.

This story-within-a-story allows King to showcase the information she gathered while carrying out research for the novel, which included a long interview with Australian taxidermist (and jewellery designer) Julia deVille. King presents her knowledge with a light touch, and at times it's hard to believe it's based on research rather than experience. Surely, even if she's never stuffed an animal, she must at least have a tattoo or two?

The answer is no; just as King didn't visit the Amazon to write The Sound of Butterflies, nor has she ever practised taxidermy or been tattooed. "I do think you can write about things without experiencing them."

And as she's now discovering, research is never wasted. In fact, it can be recycled from one novel to the next. For example, like Thomas Edgar in The Sound of Butterflies, Henry Summers is a Victorian gentleman collector - though he is rather less gentle about it than Thomas.

Similarly, the information King gathered while writing Magpie Hall is helping to spark ideas for her next novel.

"It's as if each book has a remnant of the last one in it. Now I'm getting interested in tattooed ladies - and old circuses."

In the meantime, though, she's enjoying spending time with her new baby.

"It's actually really nice to have the book coming out when it is. It means that when I'm at home with the children, there's a bit of me out in the world."

She's also taking the opportunity to catch up on some reading, including recent books by other New Zealand writers, such as Anna Taylor, Alison Wong and Paula Morris.

Like them, King takes her job seriously. She knows she's been lucky so far, particularly getting The Sound of Butterflies published in the potentially lucrative US market. "It hasn't been a best-seller, but I've made enough from it to get by on."

Success is about more than luck, though, or even talent. It's also about persistence.

"I don't want to do anything else with my life except write, which provides me with a lot of motivation. If that means writing 10 letters to get an agent, and not being put off if you get rejected, then that's what you have to do. It's hard out there - there are millions of people who want to write books. But if you've just spent two years of your life working on something, then you shouldn't think it's too hard."

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