I LOVE a gothic Victorian ghost story, so when The Poisoned House by Michael Ford dropped through my mailbox for review I was very excited and sure it would be right up my street. And mostly it was.
Set in Victorian London, The Poisoned House tells the story of fifteen-year-old Abi Tamper. Since her mother’s death a year ago, Abi has found herself in the lowly position of scullery maid in the Greave household. Previously the well treat daughter of the much loved nursemaid, without her Mother’s protection and the Lord of the house quickly descending into insanity, she is now cruelly abused and forced to work long hours by the master’s sister in law and housekeeper, Mrs Cotton.
But there’s another presence in the house, one of the ghostly kind, and it seems to want to tell Abi something. Unravelling the sinister secrets of the house puts Abi in even more danger, and someone very human is determined to stop her.
From the very first page I knew I was going to really enjoy this book. It starts with Abi running away from Greave Hall, only to be brought quickly back again. The descriptions of London late at night are extremely atmospheric, Abi’s terror drew me in straight away and the tension as she returns is palpable. As we find out more about Abi’s tragic background I started to really sympathise with her. This is a girl who has not only lost her Mother, but has been cast down into a position of slavery. Quite rightly, she’s meek, vulnerable and frightened, but she also has a curious and questioning streak and a quiet courage that ensures she seeks the truth.
Mrs. Cotton is the archetypal gothic villain, a woman in a position of power she doesn’t deserve or is entitled to, cruel, bitter and heartless. The ghostly presence is subtle and sinister, you’re not really sure if it’s friend or foe and there were some real jump out of your skin moments throughout the book. The Greave family are deliciously disturbed, just what you want in this kind of book. The Master is mostly just in the background wrapped up in secrecy and insanity. The dashing Samuel, son of the master, provides some lighter and tender moments when he arrives home injured from the Crimean war, as do the other servants who stick together in their fear and misery. The characters may have been a little clichéd at times, but let’s’ face it, they are exactly what we want from a book like this and Ford gets them pretty much spot on.
The Poisoned House has many secrets to reveal and while I predicted some of them, I was also proved wrong at times too. Right up until the big reveal at the end I would have said this book is fantastic. Unfortunately the ending was a bit of a let down. It felt very rushed; I was left with unanswered questions and wanted much more. This is a very short book at just 230 pages and I do feel at least another 50 could have been afforded to make it truly satisfying. Everything seemed to just fall in too neatly and there was very little explanation for the character’s actions. After the fantastic character development, tense build up and red herrings the half hearted ending seemed contrived, which is truly a great shame.
I really did enjoy this book. It has a sympathetic main character, a thoroughly evil villain, dark family secrets and atmospheric setting…hell, there’s even a crazy old medium and some ouija boards going on! I tore through the pages at an alarming pace, holding my breath for many of them. It’s a good book, the easy style and compelling story would tempt even reluctant readers and without being too graphic I think this is one that would be suitable for anyone aged 11 up. Unfortunately the ending left me less than completely satisfied and stopped it being a great book, but I’d definitely check out Michael Ford’s work again.