The Rich Man's House by Andrew McGahan

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

The Rich Man’s House is a substantial book – not only in terms of its length as it is just shy of 600 pages – but in terms of its scope and subject matter.  Ostensibly a thriller, it is far more than that. 

Using a well-tried technique in the thriller genre, Andrew McGahan has assembled a group of people in a house which is not built on or into but within the highest mountain in the world  As any reader of thrillers would know, in these circumstances, members of the group start dying until there is only one person left to tell the story.  If this was all there was to The Rich Man’s House, it would just be considered a good sound thriller.

But The Rich Man’s House is by one of Australia’s finest writers – one only needs to consider the awards he has won to be convinced of the appositeness of this description.  Andrew McGahan has expanded on the concept of the thriller to encompass elements of fantasy, horror and fictional history.  The rich man of the title – Walter Richman [note the play on words] – is one of the world’s richest men and an expert mountaineer.  He is the only person who has climbed to the top of the Wheel – the world’s highest mountain located somewhere between Tasmania and the Antarctica and is some 25,000 metres high.  He engages a world-renowned architect to design a house within Theodolite Isle which overlooks the Wheel.  Money is no object.

To celebrate the completion of the house, Richman invites five selected guests to a celebration.  The group comprises four people who were either indirectly or directly involved in the design or building of the house.  The exception is Rita Gausse whose purpose there is gradually disclosed as the story progresses.

After reading the first 60 or 70 pages of the book, the reader could well believe that he/she is reading not a work of fiction but a history of the discovery and later the conquering of the Wheel.  The reader may even believe that the Wheel is a real mountain which he/she may not have heard about before this book.  Juxtaposing accounts which are purported to be from documented accounts of the discovery of the Wheel with a history of the various attempts to climb it and contemporaneous reports of the activities of Walter Richman, the author has created a complex and multi-layered novel which confounds the reader at almost every turn.

The challenge facing the reader is one of simple comprehension – how does one visualise a mountain which is two and a half times the height of Mount Everest and whose peak is in the stratosphere?  And what’s more, how does one comprehend a man whose wealth soars into the billions and is prepared to create a house [for want of a better term] which is to be built entirely within a mountain?  It calls for what Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 called ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’.  Coleridge suggested that, if a writer could infuse a ‘human interest and a semblance of truth’ into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Suspension of disbelief often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres.  The Rich Man’s House includes elements of three of those genres – action, fantasy and horror [or thriller].

The author has certainly infused the novel with ‘human interest and a semblance of truth’.  The reader may well dislike Richman due to his excessive wealth, arrogance and his undisguised and unrelenting self-belief; but there are other characters which will engage the reader’s sympathies and perhaps even affection.  This is of course the case with all Andrew McGahan’s characters from Gordon in 1988 or George Verney in Last Drinks [just to name two] to Rita and Clara in The Rich Man’s House. 

The story is plausible.  Using the various ‘historical accounts’ mentioned above, the author has crafted a story which is quite believable.  The reader can almost accept that money – if there is enough of it – will buy a house built inside a mountain.  The events which begin to unfold as the house conceptualised by Richman begins to disintegrate follow on logically from that original premise.

But the Wheel is more than a very large mountain – it seems also that it has a soul or what is called in the novel a ‘presence’.  A presence is likened to a certain emotional response one gets when in a particularly beautiful place in nature.  Not every location prompts this response but certain places may and, if they do, it is because of a ‘presence’.  However, a ‘presence’ may also be malevolent if the site is misused or disrespected – again the suspension of disbelief needs to be applied.  This concept of a presence is critical to the novel and it would be a major spoiler if anything more was said about it.

Walter Richman’s determination to ‘conquer the mountain’ – first by climbing to its peak and then by building his house where every view is of the Wheel – suggests the attitude of humans towards nature.  Wild places whether the ocean, the countryside or a mountain are there to be conquered and built upon.  Nature in effect is a passive victim of humankind’s relentless advancements.  Sometimes, though, nature will fight back.  This is the core of the novel – nature’s own way of addressing the imbalance of power in a very dramatic and ultimately fatal way.

With a substantial catalogue behind him, Andrew McGahan could well have allowed that to speak for him.  Instead, he has crafted a wide-ranging book which breaks down barriers between genres.  There are elements of fantasy, fictional history, thriller and action.  It is to his credit that it works so well.  It is not a book that can be easily put aside.  It engages the reader from the first page and it is only at the end that the reader can release his/her breath.

Andrew McGahan died in February this year.  The Rich Man’s House is his final book and was published after his death.  He has written seven adult novels most of which have won awards including the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2005 for The White Earth.

The Rich Man’s House

[2019]

by Andrew McGahan

Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 1760 529826

596pp; $32.99  

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