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Review: The Rich Man’s House by Andrew McGahan

on October 4, 2019

The Rich Man’s House 
Andrew McGahan
Allen & Unwin
2019, 608p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

In the freezing Antarctic waters south of Tasmania, a mountain was discovered in 1642 by the seafaring explorer Gerrit Jansz. Not just any mountain but one that Jansz estimated was an unbelievable height of twenty-five thousand metres.

In 2016, at the foot of this unearthly mountain, a controversial and ambitious ‘dream home’, the Observatory, is painstakingly constructed by an eccentric billionaire – the only man to have ever reached the summit.

Rita Gausse, estranged daughter of the architect who designed the Observatory is surprised, upon her father’s death, to be invited to the isolated mansion to meet the famously reclusive owner, Walter Richman. But from the beginning, something doesn’t feel right. Why is Richman so insistent that she come? What does he expect of her?

When cataclysmic circumstances intervene to trap Rita and a handful of other guests in the Observatory, cut off from the outside world, she slowly begins to learn the unsettling – and ultimately horrifying – answers.

The Rich Man’s House, Andrew McGahan’s eleventh and final novel, is a gripping and unique thriller.

Andrew McGahan has truly been a literary giant. He’s a winner of the Miles Franklin award and is the author of numerous critically acclaimed and beloved novels. Unfortunately, this is his final novel and he passed away before it was officially published, of pancreatic cancer. This novel has a little note from McGahan at the beginning, a sort of farewell to readers and almost a small plea for understanding about anything that might not be perfect within the pages. Although he considered it a finished piece, ready to send out into the world, the strength of his illness and his awareness of his time left on Earth meant that he felt some of the edits were a bit rushed, done quicker than he probably would have liked.

The first thing that struck me about this novel was that it was ambitious, even when an author is not battling a severe and debilitating illness. In The Rich Man’s House McGahan creates an alternative timeline, gifting the world a mysterious mountain between Tasmania and Antarctica that is almost three times the size of Everest. Named the Red Wheel, it has been conquered by one man alone, Walter Richman in the 1970s. Richman, an incredibly wealthy business entrepreneur who inherited billions in wealth from his father, funded an expedition to conquer the vast summit using all the technology that money could buy. It was supposed to be a triumph for the community with groups summiting after Richman himself but at the end of the day, only Richman made it to the top. And not much has ever been said about why.

Now, years later, Richman has returned to the southern waters to build is dream home from a viewpoint where he can see the mountain he alone conquered for the rest of his days. Having been used as a military, NASA and weather station, the solid rock is now leased by Richman to create the Observatory and no expense has been spared for that vast home within the rock. Now it is complete but it’s not without its controversy. Rita Gausse, the daughter of the architect that designed it finds herself invited to the celebration of its completion, given her father died during its construction. When Rita travels to the island she discovers that there is probably a special reason why Richman has invited her, one that has nothing to do with honouring her father.

This book has amazing atmosphere from the first page. It alternates between Rita’s farewell of her father and subsequent journey and experience at the Observatory with pieces from the alternate history that McGahan has created. The discovery of this vast mountain, its naming, various explorers experiences with it and finally, Richman’s conquering of it and the mysterious circumstances that surround it. It is at times, difficult to imagine the scope of the Red Wheel as well as Richman’s house. McGahan probably had a very vivid picture of it but trying to imagine something 2.5x the size of Everest in the middle of the ocean is a daunting task. McGahan makes excellent use of the isolated location and its volatile weather (some of which is created and enhanced by the mountain itself) to build an eeriness. And then, the incidents start.

I read this when I was down at Phillip Island, during a day which ended up pretty bleak weather wise, it was dark with black clouds and heavy rain. I read from the afternoon well into the night and at one stage I had to stop because the claustrophobic atmosphere of the book, with these people trapped in Walter Richman’s mountain rock house with no means of escape and being placed under threat, was giving me anxiety. Even though I couldn’t always picture what everything was supposed to look like, in some ways it felt like I was there. The weather is so well described, the isolation, the way in which they slowly realise what is happening. At first it is only Rita, and it is not something she acknowledges about herself anymore these days after ‘the incident’. There’s a creeping menace in the vast monstrosity of a house and I was like Rita at times, agog at the expense and wastage of such an indulgence. Richman is the embodiment of his arrogant name, a typical wealthy man who only needs to speak the word and people snap to do his bidding. What he wants he gets and he throws money at problems until they go away. This is not something he can throw money at and I am not sure this is a situation he understands being in. And in some ways, I can sympathise with that even if I cannot sympathise with Richman himself. Because what he’s experiencing cannot really be explained by logic as we know it. However his actions show such little regard for human life that I couldn’t help but want him to face the consequences of his past.

I didn’t expect the more paranormal aspects of the story going in but I found that they evolved quite naturally once I was immersed in the story. There’s so much going on here, it’s not just about a rich man who builds a house, despite the simplicity of the title. It’s an exploration of much more than that, of the world around us and our impact on it. And the way in which humans do tend to want to dominate a landscape, simply because it is there.

I thought this was incredibly engaging and masterfully done, given the scope.


Book #154 of 2019

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