The Paper Palace, Miranda Cowley Heller's bestseller, is a grim and wintry tale, despite its Cape Cod setting

  • The Paper Palace, by Miranda Cowley Heller. Penguin, $32.99.

If my father were still alive, he would describe the characters in this novel as "misery-gutted". By that Dad meant selfish, narrow, devoid of grace or fun - and probably well-off.

Since James Michener's endless epics, family sagas have gone out of fashion. Miranda Cowley Heller intends to resuscitate the genre with her debut novel.

Her three-generational family story is set in a cottage in the "Back Woods" of Cape Cod.

One big room, with an outdoor shower, on a pond next to the sea, contains much of the action.

Interludes - whether exile in an iguana-infested Guatemalan villa or fighting off a skinhead on a London street - are rendered with less depth and artifice than the "Paper Palace" in New England.

Readers hoping for a whiff of cosy, glossy sentimentality, or the crisper New England in Walden, Caleb's Crossing or Land's End will be disappointed.

Although the bulk of Heller's novel is set in summer, its mood is grimly, bitterly wintry.

As an opening, Heller's heroine, Eleanor, dresses in a weather-beaten bath robe which "smells of dormancy tinged with mouse droppings".

Her energies are charged by the memory of "grinding, silent, desperate" sex the previous night, a one-night stand (soon to be one night and one afternoon) with a close family friend.

Those three adjectives describing sex convey the essentially joyless character of the family's lives.

Then, distinctly ugly flashbacks reveal Eleanor's mother and childhood, each as grisly and bleak as the other.

The recollection of a surgical error with an ovary and repeated child sexual abuse are especially gruesome.

As the novel flicks back and forth, from place to place, sometimes by hours, otherwise by decades, you might well wonder whether any of the characters deserves the minute, clinically precise attention devoted to them.

To a man and a woman, they are shallow, insufferably entitled and morbidly narcissistic.

One writes books reviews, another paints, but all of them focus on moping and whining.

That the characters are repellent is not a criticism of the author, who has chosen to bring them to life in such a manner. She has done so artfully, intensely and credibly.

The lame-duck husband is celebrated for having made his loved ones "feel it was safe to be happy again".

A reader may, however, wonder if they ever knew what happiness actually involved.

This story A grim family saga devoid of joy or happiness first appeared on The Canberra Times.