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Book Review: Currawong Manor by Josephine Pennicott

In this atmospheric and historically detailed tale set in the Blue Mountains, Josephine Pennicott tells the story of Elizabeth Thorrington, a renown photographer, who’s inviCurrawong Manorted to the home her famous grandfather, the artist, Rupert Partridge, Currawong Manor, in order to photograph the house and some of the people that used to live there for a new book that’s been commissioned. This book is set to celebrate the life and talents of Rupert. But Currawong Manor is a place of secrets and regrets, of lies and deceptions, of long-held suspicions and is the place where a great tragedy happened many years earlier. A tragedy for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been provided… until perhaps now…

Knowing her family’s tortured history, Elizabeth is a rather sad and quite prickly young woman, who has her own skeletons in the closet. Introduced to the current residents as well as one of her grandfather’s muses, the still vibrant and sassy Ginger, Elizabeth is keen to commence the project for which she’s been commissioned and delighted to be working with one of her grandfather’s “Flowers” as the young women were known back then.

Back in the 1940s, Ginger was one of three young women who lived with her grandfather, his wife, Doris and their lovely young daughter Shalimar, and posed for his many paintings. Whispered about, the source of much gossip and speculation as well as desire, regarded as a “fallen woman”, Ginger has risen above her origins as a “Surrey Hill rat” to become celebrated in her own right. Aware of the debt she owes Rupert and his legacy, grateful for the chance he once gave her, Ginger has agreed to be interviewed and photographed, but that doesn’t mean she has to like it.

Elizabeth also meets the former musician and journalist, Nick, who has made a living writing “true crime” stories and who has been hired to write the prose that will accompany Elizabeth’s photographs for the new book.

Curious about what happened back in the 1940s when so many lives were cruelly cut short, and determined to uncover the truth, Elizabeth quickly realises that Ginger and another resident at the Manor, Dolly, know more than they are prepared to tell.

Determined to get the heart of the matter, to clear her grandfather’s reputation and find out what really happened all those years ago, Elizabeth not only has to confront her family’s past, but the toll that years of secrets and dissembling has taken upon her and those she loves most.

Dark, the story unfolds languidly, moving the reader backwards in time before returning to the present, weaving a tapestry of mood and affect. Different points of view dominate, but mainly Elizabeth and Ginger’s and it’s through these two women that the reader, like those who study the challenging works of art and photographs that pepper the narrative, telling their own story, comes to understand the truth. We have to look closely, delve deeper, read the imagery and the meanings that accrue around people, their actions and the objects they hold dear in order to uncover the secrets. Just as Rupert used symbols to expose the brutality and callousness of war and the human wreckage it leaves behind, so too, Pennicott uses the architecture of the house and the magnificent grounds with its abundant flora as well as the haunting and dangerous Owlbone Woods (which is a character in itself), to hint at what’s to come, at what lies below the surface.

The settings are richly and beautifully drawn. You can smell the flowers, feel the cold press of the snow or the dewy warmth of a humid summer. Likewise, as the mystery unravels, you can feel the whispers of the past and the weight of guilt that hangs upon those who carry their secrets, determined to protect themselves and others. Like the birds that occasionally darken the eaves of the house, doom walks through the pages and reading Currawong Manor becomes a visceral experience – at once exciting and dramatic.

A Gothic treat for lovers of mystery, family dramas, history and suspense.

 

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