Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Art, war, and secrets: Currawong Manor by Josephine Pennicott

With her previous novel, Poet’s Cottage, Josephine Pennicott proved that edgy bohemian glamour and gothic creepiness made a great combination. Here she continues these themes but ups her game further with her riveting dual-period novel, set in Australia’s Blue Mountains in 2000 and 1945, about dreadful family secrets, the interpretations of creative works, and the lasting impact of war on artists and their art.

The modern protagonist, photographer Elizabeth Thorrington, jumps at the chance to return to Currawong Manor, her grandparents’ remote estate, following a career scandal. In the course of preparing a coffee-table book about her grandfather, eccentric painter Rupert Partridge, and his three beautiful life-models called the “Flowers,” she hopes to learn about her family history. A wild, haunted place, with its fairytale garden, high towers, and mythological sculptures wreathed in mist, Currawong was once the scene for a trio of tragedies. “The locals have always called it the Ruins,” Elizabeth tells a friend, “not just because it’s fallen into ruins, but because it ruins lives.” Then there are the mysterious “dollmaker” and her daughter, who were allowed to remain on the property – why?

The writing is sharp throughout, with striking images of the house both in the modern segments and in its prime. The most memorable creation is Ginger Lawson, whose attitude is as fiery as her hair. A former “Flower” with lots of sex appeal even in her 70s, Ginger returns to Currawong to be depicted anew in Elizabeth’s book. Her recollections about Rupert drive the plot along.

There’s a lot of story packed into the nearly 400 pages, all perfectly paced, with secrets teased out bit by bit until the shocking denouement – which is worth staying up late to discover. Fans of Kate Morton should devour it, but Pennicott has a distinctive style all her own.

This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review's May issue and is based on my own copy of the book.  Currawong Manor was published by Macmillan Australia in 2014 in trade paperback (Au$29.99) and as an ebook ($11.99 - update 5/14, as the price just dropped).  This review is my 2nd entry for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

And for readers unfamiliar with what a currawong is, they're birds native to Australasia, and their presence plays a role in the story.

14 comments:

  1. Sounds like a great read - thanks for the review!

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    1. It was definitely worth reading. Just wish it wasn't so hard to come by in the US.

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  2. I like the setting especially the Australian background.

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    1. Seems I've read a few novels set in the Blue Mountains recently. I've never been there, but it had me googling for more info - it sounds like a beautiful location.

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  3. Currawong Manor is in my reading pile. I've not read any of Josephine Pennicott's novels, so if this is in a similar style to Kate Morton's I'm sure to enjoy it too.

    I often see currawongs around my home. They have such a mournful song that it's easy to link them to gothic mansions and misty landscapes.

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    1. I hope she'll be writing others along the same lines.

      In this book, a large number of currawongs gathering on the roof of the manor is a sign of death approaching. I just found a video with one on YouTube and see what you mean. It is the cutest thing though!

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    2. Thanks for the video link. Looks like the currawong is singing for its supper!

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    3. You're right :) And it got its meal at the end!

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  4. Love novels set in Australia - this one sounds like one I'll have to keep my eye out for.

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    1. Same here. I've been reading a number of Australian-set novels this year - this may be my third.

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  5. I love the gothic genre and Kate Morton's novels, so I'm likely to love this one too! Thanks for highlighting this new-to-me author!

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    1. Thanks, glad you liked the review!

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  6. Thank you, Sarah for your support and review. It means worlds. I've been engrossed in the world of my current book in progress and so I'm a little behind in my thanks. I love your thoughtful review of Currawong Manor and especially the tag ‘edgy bohemian glamour and gothic creepiness’. So perfect! xx

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    1. My pleasure, and I'm glad you liked the review. I loved the atmosphere in the novel - and am looking forward to your new one!

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