Poet’s Cottage is a haunted house. Australian author Josephine Pennicott has taken the traditional features of a good old-fashioned English ghost story (creaking floors, slamming doors, things that go bump in the night) and transplanted them to 20th century Australia. The transition is an effective one: the seaside village of Pencubitt is quiet and remote, its nineteenth-century buildings have dark cellars and spider-ridden attics and its people are eccentric. If there are ghosts anywhere in our ‘wide brown land’, I would expect to find them somewhere like Tasmanian “Pencubitt”.
The house is also the site of a notorious murder, so its narrow rooms are inevitably linked to a violent past. The victim, Pearl Tatlow, is an exotic and egotistical children’s author who lives and dies there in the 1930s; her ghost ‘haunts’ her ancestors’ home in the present as her relatives try to come to terms with a family crime that has never been solved.
There are many mysteries in the novel. Could Pearl’s husband have been her killer, or the close woman friend who married him and became step-mother to his children? What happened to Angel, the family servant who suddenly disappeared one night? And why did Thomasina, the elder girl, hate her mother so much while her younger sister clearly adored her?
Poet’s Cottage is as much about a family’s secrets and lies as it is about ghosts and hauntings. I’d recommend it if you enjoy well-written, atmospheric mysteries, and are willing to accept the possibility of the supernatural, at least as a plot device. And for an Australian reader, the fact that the setting is close to home is a bonus: who would have thought that something so sinister could lurk just below the surface of our “lucky country’s” open, sunny life?