Author: Josephine Pennicott
Pan Macmillan RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Currawong Manor

A few months ago I was visiting the Blue Mountains in NSW and, watching the mist swirl around the hills from my coffee-shop vantage point, commented to a friend that the setting was perfect for a gothic novel. I grew up near there and there’s this delicious eerie-ness about the place, especially the Upper Mountains, akin to Victoria’s Hanging Rock. Although ideas swirled in my head that day, author Josephine Pennicott has beaten me to it with Currawong Manor, an atmospheric tale of secrets and suspense set in the present-day and 1940s.

The World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains are well-known for their magnificent views and stunning mountain gardens, but day-trippers and tourists are rarely privy to the more mysterious pull of the region that comes from the mist-shrouded trees, disappearances, legends and more. At times, when I visit, I sense that the bush is the holder of ancient secrets. The mysterious nature of the bush was a source of concern for early settlers, who saw the place as one where people disappeared; artist Frederick McCubbin’s 1886 painting, The Lost Child, builds on that sense of anxiety and fear – based on a true story, it’s a painting that has stuck with me and comes to mind when I think of the Blue Mountains.

Pennicott has succeeded in capturing this legendary sense of mystery, anxiety and fear juxtaposed with beauty and wonder in Currawong Manor. Her prose paints scenes with vivid colour and shadowy undertones. Consider this sample:

It seemed a mockery that Devil’s Leap should shimmer with so much rich beauty. The rocks shone with multi-jewelled browns, copper and rust tones. We were on the edge of the world and the air was filled with ancient magic and dreaming. Hundreds of feet below us stretched thick bush, strewn with rocky outcrops. Anything you could imagine might be down there. Even the stones seemed to carry power and ancient stories; the forest might be filled with birds that knew the secrets of time.

Currawong Manor centres around a house, once home to artist Rupert Partridge, his family and his three muses, but now in process of being restored by its new owner. Photographer (and Partridge’s grand-daughter) Elizabeth Thorrington is invited to document the history of the house for a book, which opens the door to her investigating an old mystery: What happened to Partridge following the deaths of his wife, Doris, and daughter, Shalimar? Speculation has long been rife and continues 60 years later, but the truth has never been discovered. Elizabeth’s questioning leads her to Ginger Lawson, one of Rupert’s life models from the forties, and Dolly Shaw, the daughter of the enigmatic ‘dollmaker’ who seems to have been protected over the years by the Partridge family, and while Elizabeth is sure they know something, she’s hard pressed to find out what. Meanwhile, a menacing presence haunts the grounds and nearby woods and Elizabeth soon finds herself feeling more and more disturbed.

Set in the fictional town of Mount Bellwood (most likely based on Blackheath, NSW), the story weaves in other haunting elements such as premonitions of death shown via the gathering of currawongs, strange characters and unseen prowlers lurking under cover of the trees, as well as references to Daphne Du Maurier’s classic, Rebecca. The dual time period narrative is told in the first and third person through recollections, flashbacks and present-day reporting. It all comes together to create a gothic-style story brimming with intrigue, bohemia, secrets and betrayals with an unusual twist that may just inspire some further research.

Currawong Manor has everything I love in a novel – a decaying house creating a dark and oppressive setting (enhanced by the mountain location), a heightened sense of suspense, a slowly-unfolding mystery, and some sinister characters (including the house and the nearby woods). There are also secondary romantic elements, which add to the tension. The standout feature for me was the sense of place; because it was captured so well, it made me want to plan a holiday to the Blue Mountains sooner rather than later.

For those who love a good gothic-style mystery, add Currawong Creek to your to-read list – I highly recommend it. I’ve added Pennicott’s 2013 novel, Poet’s Corner, to my to-read list.

Available from good bookstores and Pan Macmillan. My copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan.

Bookish treat: I feel a yearning for a coffee and chocolate at the Paragon Cafe in Katoomba – a place I loved as a child.

GIVEAWAY: I have one copy of Currawong Creek to give away to an AU reader (sorry, international readers, but postage costs are too high). To be in the running, just comment below and tell me the most eerie-feeling place you’ve ever been to.

WINNER: meedee89 – Congratulations!