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Book Review: Poet’s Cottage by Josephine Pennicott

This is a wonderful, haunting piece of work that starts in the present day when newly divorced Sadie, along with her teenage daughter, Betty, moves to the sea-village of Pencubitt in Tasmania to claim an inheritance, the benignly and yet appropriately named house, Poet’s Cottage. On arrival, Sadie finds herself welcomed by both the rather closed and sPoet's Cottageomewhat eccentric community and the gorgeous house that, according to locals, needs a writer and, particularly a Tatlow, to bring it to life. Once the home of Sadie’s grandmother, the infamous children’s author, Pearl Tatlow, Sadie knows little about her relative except that her mother adored her and what she can glean from the children’s books her grandmother wrote and the snippets of delicious scandal that follow in Pearl’s wake. The other certainty that rightly  unnerves Sadie and Betty is that Pearl was brutally murdered in the cellar of Poet’s Cottage – a death that seems to have leached into the very foundations and walls of the house itself. As the killer was never found and Pearl’s presence lingers, not only in the house, but in the memories (written and otherwise) of many of the villagers, Sadie determines to unravel the mystery of her grandmother’s death and try and resolve the conflicting stories she’s told about Pearl Tatlow: which was she? Adored mother and talented writer, whimsical, imaginative and warm? Or a selfish seductress and abusive mother and wife who cared for little but herself? Sadie must delve deeply to find the truth, crack open the shell of lies and fabrications to reveal the real woman behind the shiny, beauteous facade. Pearl is, in this regard, aptly named: she is either a precious thing buried beneath layers of grimy history and skewed familial and local stories or she is merely a broken promise, an empty shell devoid of depth. There are risks to this kind of search for the truth as Sadie is about to find out…

Segueing between past and present, from first person narrative (being an unedited version of a published book about Pearl called Webweaver, written by a local, the interesting Birdie) to third person, as a reader you’re drawn into both Pearl and Sadie’s stories that centre on family, relationships, female desire, social standards, gossip, assumptions and the power of words. This book is, in so many ways, a tale about the way words shape, inspire, create and destroy. How they can both build and harm. The Tatlows and others in the novel are either professional users of words or people who deploy them with a specific purpose such as in letters or wills. Within these forms, they construct versions of events, history and themselves… But for what purpose and what, if anything, are they hiding or revealing? What is fact? What is fiction? Just as writers construct imaginative worlds and tales for others to escape into, it seems other characters are not above doing this for themselves, whether it be a children’s book, a work of non-fiction, letters, retellings of occasions or conversations  or even Betty’s wistful blogs, reconstructing themselves in the process. In all these modes, the subjective nature of ‘truth’ is exposed and questioned as is the transformative ability of words. Through words, of the novel and those given to the characters, imagination and memory are shown to be powerful tools that are wielded freely and in ways that mirror how we utilise both to protect, preserve, alter events to privilege a specific version and hasten forgetting of another. But this is not the time for fiction… Sadie wants and needs facts, but they’re proving harder to uncover than she ever realised.

The story is also about survival – surviving loss, the abnegation of longing, abuse, thwarted desires, and shattered or even fulfilled dreams and the role memory can play in these as well. It’s about female bonds and the capacity women have for great unity and destruction – mostly of each other. As we follow the many threads that weave both Pearl’s tale and thus Sadie’s, we’re seduced into a particular kind of thinking and believing. It’s testimony to Pennicott’s exquisite prose that just as you think you understand where the characters and stories are heading, your expectations are overturned. I loved this about the novel. What I also loved is that I could see these characters; what they wore, ate, how they walked. I could feel the wind on my face, walk through the misty streets of Pencubitt, and feel the cold embrace of Poet’s Cottage. Pennicott evokes time and place with a light and meaningful touch: a word, a mood, a gesture all bring the past and present lives of those dwelling in the village into acute focus.

This is a gorgeous, sometimes harrowing but always moving and deep story that remains with you long after the last page. Simply lovely. A triumph.

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