Title: The Poisoned House
Author: Michael Ford
Genre: Horror, Historical, Young Adult
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Co (US)/Bloomsbury Plc (UK)
Publication date: August 2011/August 2010
Hardcover: 304 pages
Life can be cruel for a servant girl in 1850s London. Fifteen-year-old Abi is a scullery maid in Greave Hall, an elegant but troubled household. The widowed master of the house is slowly slipping into madness, and the tyrannical housekeeper, Mrs.Cotton, punishes Abi without mercy. But there’s something else going on in Greave Hall, too. An otherworldly presence is making itself known, and a deadly secret will reveal itself—-a secret that will shatter everything Abi knows.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: e-ARC via NetGalley
Why did I read this book: I’ve been in the mood for a good traditional Victorian ghost story – The Poisoned House definitely fits the bill.
Greave Hall is an imposing and wealthy estate, but as of late its master, Lord Greave, has become increasingly unstable. For a young scullery maid like Abigale Tamper, life at Greave Hall has become almost unbearable. After her mother passed away from cholera nearly a year earlier, Abi has become an orphan with few friends and even fewer options. With his son Samuel is fighting in the Crimea and his wife long dead some twenty years earlier, Lord Greave retreats further from others each day, falling victim to depression and mental infirmary. And, while the master of the home is disengaged from life, his dead wife’s half-sister and estate housekeeper, Mrs. Cotten, takes increasing liberties with her role in the manor by wearing her sister’s fine clothes, throwing dinners with her friends, and in her cruelty towards the hall’s staff – especially Abi. When a few of the staff below stairs pretend to be ghostly apparitions to scare Mrs. Cotten, Abi is terrified when an actual ghost seems to be haunting the hall – noneother than Abi’s recently deceased mother. Abi’s mother’s spirit is not at rest, and she has something of dire importance to communicate to her orphaned daughter. Greave Hall holds many secrets, and Abi must unravel the mystery of her mother’s death and Lord Greave’s descent into madness, before it is too late.
Featuring a haunted manor and its mad master, a cruel housekeeper and an intrepid young heroine, The Poisoned House is an engaging Victorian mystery with a ghostly twist. As with the best period novels in haunted estates, atmosphere is integral to The Poisoned House and Mr. Ford imbues Greave Hall with the perfect air of creeping dread with forbidding spirits, ghostly handprints, creaking floorboards and the like. The mystery surrounding the Hall takes off when Abi learns that her mother may have been poisoned and not killed by cholera as she’d always believed – but who would want to kill her mother, the kind, gentle nursemaid? There’s also the ongoing tension and mystery as to why Mrs. Cotten, the estate housekeeper with a cruel streak, is so set on making Abi’s life miserable, with both emotional and physical abuse. While the villain in this piece might seem straightforward, there are a few layers to this mystery, which I greatly appreciated. Mr. Ford unravels the story of Greave Hall and the lives caught up in the tangle tantalizingly over the book, leading to an immensely satisfying conclusion – with more than a few twists along the way.
On the character front, Abi is our first person narrator set on communicating with her mother’s spirit and finding her murderer. Enterprising, brave, and determined, Abi is a fine heroine (if, at times, a bit dense), and it’s easy to slip into her narrative and sympathize with her plight as a scullery maid and an orphan with no options. There’s a bit of A Little Princess‘s Sarah Crewe to Abi and The Poisoned House, and shades of other gothic heroines like Jane Eyre and Emily St. Aubert. While Abi can confide in friend Lizzie, a fellow maid in Greave Hall (whom I also loved as a character), the other staff are, refreshingly, not all sunshine and happiness and coddling towards young Abi. The Hall’s Cook is a hard woman that likes her gin, and, like Master Greave’s butler, these characters are not bad people, but will do what they must to protect their positions of employment – even if that means keeping terrible secrets. As for those characters above stairs, Lord Greave is a tragic figure with whom readers can both sympathize, but also feel enraged towards (especially as the truth unfolds). There’s also his son, Samuel, who returns injured from the Crimean War. Like a brother to Abi, especially as her mother was also his nurse, Sam’s return marks a change in atmosphere at Greave Hall. Finally, there’s the villainous Mrs. Cotten, with her usurped finery and her untoward treatment of Abi. My only complaint with her character is that while we do eventually (somewhat) understand her motivations, I only wish we could have learned more about her character and why she has become so bitter and cruel.
With a few surprising twists, an impressive and fitting gothic atmosphere, and a sympathetic heroine, The Poisoned House is an engrossing, ghostly novel. Although the ending is a bit too pat for my tastes, I enjoyed this book and recommend the book to anyone looking for a good period mystery.
Notable Quotes/Parts: Check out the official book trailer below:
Rating: 7 – Very Good, Recommended
Buy the Book: