Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Poet's Cottage by Josephine Pennicott, a twisty, long-awaited gothic read

I first came across Josephine Pennicott's Poet's Cottage on Kate Forsyth's blog back in July 2012.  A creepy gothic mystery set not in mist-enshrouded England but amid the wild, beautiful landscape of remote Tasmania?  It seemed like my type of book.

I added it to my wishlist then but apparently waited too long to buy it since it went out of stock at Fishpond right afterward.  For nearly two years, I wasn't able to find it anywhere except in audiobook format.  That is, until last month, when Fishpond notified me it was back in stock in paperback.  I snagged it right away and set my review books aside temporarily so I could read it as soon as it arrived.

Poet's Cottage shifts easily between timelines set in the 1930s and the present day, but there's nothing nostalgic about the past here. The atmosphere has an edginess that heightens the tension, most of it surrounding the magnetic, abrasive Pearl Tatlow and the violent way she died.

A talented children's author, Pearl comes to live at Poet's Cottage in 1935, when she, her husband, and two daughters move back to Australia from Europe and settle into his hometown, the small fishing village of Pencubitt.  Gorgeous and outspoken, she scandalizes everyone with her self-absorbed attitude and bohemian ways, not to mention her extramarital affairs and the murder party she hosts.

When she's found stabbed to death in her own cellar, the brash strains of "Ain't Misbehavin'" playing in the background, many people are shocked, but not everyone is terribly surprised or even upset. Pearl is a difficult personality, and probably suffers from what we'd call bipolar disorder today, but she's so compelling that she steals every scene she's in.

Nearly eighty years later, Pearl's adult granddaughter, Sadie, inherits Poet's Cottage and moves there with her teenage daughter Betty after her divorce.  Hoping to write a book about Pearl, Sadie makes a new life for herself in this close-knit seaside town, making friends with local women and hearing about her ancestor from two people who knew Pearl well: her friend and early biographer, Birdie Pinkerton, and Pearl's elder daughter, Thomasina, who hated her mother because of her cruelty and abuse.

Pearl's murder was never solved, and Sadie hears talk that her house is supposedly haunted. (Although Poet's Cottage has its own quaint charm, that Sadie and Betty choose to live in a place with such a bloody personal history says much about their strength.)  As they learn more about their infamous relative, they find reason to believe that events from the past are reaching out to touch them. What really happened in that grisly cellar?  Young Thomasina witnessed the crime, but her account is unreliable. And how much did Birdie know?  She did marry Pearl's husband years after the murder, after all...

I found myself wanting more detail on some aspects of the story, such as why Thomasina was treated so poorly by her mother while her sister Marguerite was favored. Also, the reputed health effects of the "Pencubitt air and lifestyle" notwithstanding, the number of women from Pearl's time who are still spry and lively in Sadie's era is pretty remarkable.

But these are minor points.  Poet's Cottage is a creepy and gripping mystery/family drama with a strong sense of place, and the storyline is even more intricate than what I've described here, but I didn't have trouble following along. If you seek out the novels of Kate Morton, Katherine Webb, and Diane Setterfield, chances are this will be right up your alley, too.  Unfortunately it's not available outside Australia, but I got my copy at Fishpond (postage-free) and found the price well worth it.

Poet's Cottage was published by Pan Macmillan Australia in trade paperback in 2012 (371pp, list price A$19.99).


  1. This sounds very good - our group has enjoyed both Morton and Setterfield, and found they sparked more discussions than some of our other books. We'll troll our libraries to find some copies - thanks for the review.

    1. This one would be good as a book discussion topic, with all of the intertwining mysteries. I just checked WorldCat and see that one US library now has a copy! I hope it will find a US publisher eventually.

  2. Seems odd in this day and age that a book should be "not available." Although I hear there are questionable things going on at Amazon lately.

    I suspect many teachers read this blog, and if so they might be interested in a current post on The Millions entitled "55 Thoughts for English teachers." It made me stop and think....

    1. I'm sure it was available in Australian bookstores, but it was impossible to find online. I tried! I suppose I could have special ordered it, but figured I'd keep looking. Amazon never sold it since it was out of their territory.

      I enjoyed the 55 thoughts piece - some great point and ideas. Librarians know #42 very well.