Hall, gifted Australian author of the whimsical, fabulistic Just Relations (1982), is working in a more somber, less...



Hall, gifted Australian author of the whimsical, fabulistic Just Relations (1982), is working in a more somber, less distinctive vein here. Based on a real, unsolved murder case, ""a crime so famous it is printed in encyclopedias,"" this grimly atmospheric fictional reconstruction strains too hard for philosophical resonance--and loses credibility as it moves toward an elaborate psychosexual mystery-solution. The narrator, circa 1956, is 80-year-old Patrick Murphy, whose memory pieces together the dreadful events of December, 1898--when three of his siblings were found bound and Öludgeoned, not far from the family's southern Queensland farm. Patrick recalls his ghastly, gigantic parents, their cold yet passionate tyranny over a large brood of children, kept stunted and captive to provide free farm-labor: ""You could easily imagine us (in love) as a family of pigs, thick with bristly skin and hard round meat, bouncing off each other if we collided, our short thick legs and knobbly knees, our eyes of the captured always on the lookout for a hole in the fence, a way out of the world."" There are vivid recollections of each child's response to parental cruelty: Willie's rebellion, punished by a brain-damaging beating from Pa; Norah's saintliness; Michael's giddy boozing; Polly's flight into marriage; Jerry's lumpy gloom; and the odd, amoral fearlessness of young Ellen--only 18 when found dead (and sexually violated) along with Norah, 27, and Michael, 29. Which family members were involved in this never-explained mayhem? Patrick considers a slew of psycho-motives before revealing the complicated truth: a lurid scenario involving double-incest, jealous rage, morbid shame, unlikely coincidence, and clever coverup. He also indulges in verbose, often opaque ruminations on the entwining of love and brutality, sex and murder, family cruelty as a microcosm of war, etc. And the result is a strong yet uneven entry in the meditation-on-bygone-crime genre--darkly absorbing in its evocation of a stifling rural mÉnage, overwrought in its literary themes and gothicky psycho-dynamics.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1987


Page Count: -

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1987