The following papers were kindly donated to the Municipal Library by Anne Merchant, the current owner of 112 Park Avenue, the property formerly known as Greave Hall. [...] They appear to record several months in the year 1855 of the life of a teenage girl called Abigail Tamper, who lived and worked at that address. [...] Pages from the original can be viewed in situ at the discretion of the librarian. (7)
As an archivist I have to admit that I’m a sucker for this type of framing device (we’re all hoping that such juicy gems are hidden within the collections under our care). The story that follows is not written as a series of diary entries (which I would have loved), but rather a straightforward first-person account of what happens to the protagonist (and other residents of Greave Hall) during this period of time.
So much has changed in 15-year-old Abigail Tamper’s life in the past year. With the death of her mother (the family’s much-loved nursemaid), the absence of the young master (who’s off fighting in the Crimea), and the decline of the Lord Greave, Greave Hall has become Abi’s prison and housekeeper Mrs. Cotton her warden.
When strange things start happening at Greave Hall, Abi writes them off as pranks the other servants are playing on the dictatorial Mrs. Cotton. When a ghost possesses a medium brought in by Mrs. Cotton, Abi realizes that Greave Hall is haunted and that the ghost has a message for her.
I quite enjoyed The Poisoned House. The novel is set in the mid-19th century and crafted like a classic Victorian ghost story. The Poisoned House is a bit slow to start, but once the reader is acclimatized to the environment, the pace picks up and the story becomes more and more compelling. Abi is a likeable and plucky heroine. There's no real romance, which is a refreshing departure for readers who are tiring of love triangle-filled YA offerings.
I loved how the story ended. I refer to the framing (which I won’t detail on the off chance that doing so would spoil the book for someone) as well as to how things were resolved for the protagonist and secondary characters.
I should probably mention that there is one scene in the book that I found a bit upsetting (p.194, it was horrible and shocking, but I understand why it was included; n.b. you don't see the act being done, just the evidence). The violence perpetrated in that scene has nothing to do with the paranormal element of the story however, it stems from simple human cruelty.
Above is the cover art for the American edition (coming September 2011), which I find to be a tad too horror movie-like for my taste (it’s that grasping hand). I’m much more fond of the cover of the UK edition (published in August 2010). It’s subtler, with an atmospheric spookiness that seems much more appropriate for the story.
disclosure: I received a review copy of The Poisoned House from Albert Whitman via NetGalley. The e-galleys are like library e-books, though, they expire, so it's not like I actually get to keep it.