Book review: The Rich Man’s House

The Rich Man's House.The Rich Man’s House by Andrew McGahan.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

Andrew McGahan is dead. And this is his last work. I’ve enjoyed a lot of his work from Praise onwards – thanks to the excellent movie adaptation first, text later – and have appreciated the descriptive examination of the personal throughout his texts. The way he looked at lives that might be considered a failure by any measure, and shone tiny lights of relief on their struggles.

So naturally, his final book is a thriller, set on the edge of the world, in which degenerate wealth and animist revenge combine to paint a portrait of how fucked capitalism is, and how we’ve basically rooted the earth, to the point that it might smack us down for it.

Wait, what?

I have to admit, I was puzzled by the appearance of this book. It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of McGahan’s work, but I have to admit I enjoyed it immensely. It seems strange that of his works, I was hooked by this one the earliest, but I’m appreciative – the more I read, the more I uncovered the ecological, social, and personal themes that have been a part of the author’s work all the way through. Here, they’re just presented in a compulsively readable manner which combines gee-whiz tech, rich-guy rubbernecking and a fair tranche of fuck-get-out-now action.

McGahan knew this was his final work. In a particularly black introduction, he makes no bones about the fact that though the book is completed, there are things in here that he’d have changed if the end of life hadn’t greatly accelerated the editing and rewriting processes.

This is my last book. An author can’t always say that with certainty, but as I’m in the final stages of dying as I type this, it seems a safe bet.

It is out of consideration for the dying that I’ll let the titular billionaire’s surname – Richman – pass without a slapdown for obviousness. But hey, sometimes I guess we require obviousness on one front to allow a little subtlety to slip through the cracks elsewhere.

The story is pretty simple: as with other McGahan works, we’re in an alternate world. In this one, Everest is dwarfed by an outcropping near Tasmania called The Wheel. ‘Outcropping’ is putting it mildly: this thing is a behemoth, reaching tens of kilometres into the sky. Historical receipts provide some believability to the story of the Wheel’s defeat: an enormously rich bloke named Walter Richman, a melange of insanely wealthy motherfuckers with a distinct Richard Branson vibe, finally conquered the peak with technology and money, and did it alone – for a price.

Decades later – where we come in – the billionaire has constructed a house on nearby Theodolite Isle. It’s been designed by  famed architect Richard Gausse, though he (amongst others) has died during its construction. It’s fabulously remote, but in order to ensure the opening party goes well, a small number of people – including the architect’s daughter, Rita – are invited to the remote extravagance to work out any nuts and bolts.

The story is told with a mixture of extract – either from books or news sources – and straight narrative. It seems fairly straightforward (staid, even) for the first third of the novel, and then ramps up the tension. With a limited amount of characters – some drawn rather lovingly, in comparison to the seeming stereotypes of others – there’s an intensely personal focus here, even in the midst of some widescreen action sequences.

(I would not be surprised if a film version of this novel were made – I can imagine Sam Neill smirking his way through quite easily.)

Barring a lost work hidden in a shoebox somewhere, this is the last of McGahan’s work. It’s an odd fish, though its connection to the rest of the author’s creations becomes apparent the further you work through. The thriller part of the piece is a diversion: it’s really about wealth and the earth and how those who deem themselves masters of the universe invariably fuck everything up for the rest of us.

(Aside from that, there’s the occult/animist threads running throughout. I can’t say more about them for fear of spoiling parts of the work, but the teasing out of these ideas entertained me greatly.)

The Rich Man’s House is a thoughtful read, even though it flies by with airport-lit speed. I enjoyed it immensely. It’s a tale of excess and hubris that slides down with ease.

(My Goodreads profile is here.)

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