Lush novel by Australian Sallis (Mahjar, 2005, etc.) skillfully uses the deterioration of a sprawling house in the isolated bush to represent the collapse of a large German family of artists.
In the 1970s, the Houdini clan emigrates from Germany to settle in the Whispers, a large property in the hills near Toggenberg, Australia. The seclusion and untameable wildness of the place, strange and even terrifying to the children, is attractive to their world-weary parents, painter Acantia and renowned violist Pa. The couple is intent on leading a virtuous back-to-nature life, home-schooling their offspring and rejecting the “contaminants” of society. Over the years, each child adapts differently to the challenge of the increasingly decrepit house and overgrown, snake-infested grounds. Eldest daughter Beate, ten years old when they arrive, sees her parents’ mission as “the end”; she throws herself into playing the violin, becoming the family’s great hope and eventual tragedy. Ursula, fascinated by the locale’s dark associations, incorporates its mysteries into her games. Gotthilf, bookish but unwelcoming of his mother’s severe teaching methods, earns frequent beatings. Twins Siegfried and Helmut become goat-herders. As their kids move into adolescence, the eccentric parents blind themselves to the activities of a pedophilic family friend, Count Ugolini, who deflowers both Ursula and Gotthilf. The boy becomes a delinquent and runs away to create a new identity for himself as a writer. Ursula goes to university and helps remove younger siblings Lilo and Arno from the house. Appalled by her mother’s mania and her father’s deepening depression, Ursula forces herself to return and keep vigil at the crumbling structure. In deliberate, tactile prose, Sallis creates a chilling sense of physical decay and emotional corrosion.
A marvelous, convincing feat.