"Strong female personalities": Poet’s Cottage by Josephine Pennicott
(Imported from Blogger)
After a long break battling a computer virus and unreliable internet connection, this blog is finally able to post another review. Today’s guest blogger is novelist Elisabeth Storrs. She chose to review Josephine Pennicott’s Poet’s Cottage.
Elisabeth Storrs writes:
If you ever have doubts as to whether ghosts exist, then you should visit Tasmania. With its convict and colonial past there are buildings a plenty where phantoms reside. Poet’s Cottage by Josephine Pennicott is set in one such haunted dwelling – a house whose walls hide the clues to solving a crime committed decades ago.
Sadie and her daughter, Betty, leave Sydney for the small seaside village of Pencubbitt in Tasmania. Sadie has inherited Poet’s Cottage where her grandmother, Pearl Tatlow, was brutally murdered in 1936. Pearl was a ‘free spirit’ whose bohemian behaviour constantly challenged the morals and sensitivities of her neighbours. Acclaimed as an author of children’s books whose characters themselves have dark undertones, Pearl was charismatic, promiscuous, vicious and on the verge of madness.
The novel swings between the current day and the year of the murder. Sadie leaves behind the trauma of a divorce and the recent death of her mother, Marguerite, to write a book about her famous ancestor. Soon she is trying to uncover both the mystery of Pearl’s character and her demise. Sadie’s views are coloured by the fondness of Marguerite’s memories for her mother while Thomasina, Pearl’s other daughter, tells a different story of physical and mental abuse. Sadie learns more about the circumstances leading up to her grandmother’s death through a manuscript written by Birdie, one of Pearl’s friends. However the reliability of this account is thrown into question given Birdie’s relationship with Pearl’s husband.
Poet’s Cottage is a story with strong female personalities but the house itself has its own character too. Its aspect is charming but a visceral foreboding pervades it which gives the story a gothic feel. At times I found the accumulation of ghost stories concerning both the house and the village to be overplayed, particularly when coupled with the presence of a sinister cloaked woman.
Pennicott is skilful, though, in drawing the reader through the maze of various versions of Pearl while building up the undeniable presence of the dead woman’s spirit as the threads of the mystery are unravelled.
There is another spectre that looms over Sadie and Betty – that of insanity. Birdie tells how the temperamental Pearl’s mood would swing between elation, obsessiveness and despair. There is also evidence of a deeper history of mental illness in the family. While Pennicott hints of this legacy, she never fully develops Sadie’s fear that she might not only have inherited Pearl’s beauty and writing talent, but also her madness. Nor does she fully explore Sadie’s apprehension that seeds of instability might have been sewn in her teenage daughter as well. And while Thomasina’s tortured childhood is vividly depicted, I would have liked to know a little more about Marguerite, the favoured child.
Poet’s Cottage is an accomplished, engrossing novel with fine language and powerful descriptions of the small town inhabitants of Pencubbit in both past and modern times. Most of all, in creating the damaged and damaging Pearl, the author has created a character so compelling and complex that the image of her lingers just as surely as the strains of music from her gramophone drifted through Poet’s Cottage both before and after her death.
Pan Macmillan AustraliaReleased:
20 March 2012ISBN:
9781743345535Currently available for the following AWW participating ebook stores for $14.99: Avid Reader, Readings
Elisabeth Storrs is the author of The Wedding Shroud, the first book in a trilogy set in early Roman times. She was inspired to write the novel after seeing a C6th BCE sarcophagus depicting a man and wife in a tender embrace. Discovering the story behind the couple led her to the mystical Etruscan civilisation and the inspiration for her story.
Posted by Elizabeth Lhuede on June 30, 2012