South of Tasmania sits The Wheel. It is the largest mountain in the world, almost triple the height of Everest. Accompanied by a small island, complete with its own formidable peak, The Wheel has been conquered by only one man – American billionaire climber Walter Richman.
It’s been more than fifty years since Richman stood alone atop its apex, the frightening rock formation known as the Hand of God, while his climbing partners waited a respectful but unexpected distance below. Now, he intends to live in the mountain’s shadow, purchasing the neighbouring Theodolite Island and building a house on its highest point, The Mount.
All of this Rita Gausse knows and understands – to the extent anyone can understand the whims of the impossibly rich. What she doesn’t understand is why she’s the one asked to help celebrate the completion of the building her brilliant architect father died in. Not just because he died there, but because she’d barely spoken to Richard Gausse in years. Walter Richman is up to something, there’s no doubt about it. Something that involves Rita, an embarrassing episode from her past, and the ever-looming presence of The Wheel.
The Rich Man’s House is the eleventh and final novel from Andrew McGahan, who passed away last year after a battle with pancreatic cancer. His last work is a hefty, eerie mystery, revolving around a titanic fictious mountain that makes scaling Everest seem little more than child’s play.
McGahan spends much of the book’s near six hundred pages gradually ramping up the unease. Horror stories of climbers who have tried and failed to take on The Wheel are interspersed alongside articles about Richman and his life before, during, and after his own successful attempt. And, at the centre of it all, sits Rita, trying to weasel out the truth from Richman and his employees, a handful of characters who all seem to know a little more than they’re letting on.
By the time The Rich Man’s House reaches its last quarter, there’s an almost physically tangible snap. The violent and, often, baffling, deaths that pepper The Wheel’s history suddenly become more than just eerie outliers, the tragic failures of man’s attempts to triumph over nature. The final few hundred pages are fast-paced, bloody and brutal, with a heart-in-mouth quality that owes much to the world and tension building that came before it.
McGahan’s preface, written before his death, offers an apology, in case of rushed or unfinished writing. Well, he can rest easy. The Rich Man’s House is a triumph. The Wheel is so ingrained in the world of the novel that it feels real (at one point, I honestly Googled it to make sure) and there’s a grimly satisfying EAT THE RICH motif at its centre. Surely an appropriate theme for a grunge lit pioneer such as McGahan.
Ostensibly, this is a book about a mountain. But it’s also about money and addiction, history and family. Hubris, ego, and the curious need of humans to dominate. Whether that’s each other or the ancient, natural world around them. The Rich Man’s House is a true page-turner and a momentous send-off for a celebrated Australian author.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)