Review: The Poisoned House by Michael Ford

Book: The Poisoned House
Author: Michael Ford
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Release date: August 1, 2011
Source: ARC for review from NetGalley

Summary: (from Goodreads) Life can be cruel for a servant girl in 1850s London. Fifteen-year-old Abi is a scullery maid in Greave Hall, an elegant but troubled household. The widowed master of the house is slowly slipping into madness, and the tyrannical housekeeper, Mrs.Cotton, punishes Abi without mercy. But there’s something else going on in Greave Hall, too. An otherworldly presence is making itself known, and a deadly secret will reveal itselfâ??-a secret that will shatter everything Abi knows.

First impressions: I adore it when stories start with outside information. In this case, the book opens with a statement that the story that follows is based on letters found inside the estate many years later. I practically rubbed my hands together in anticipation. That kind of literary device makes it all seem more real to me as a reader, and I was super psyched to dive into this one as a result.

Lasting impressions: Similarly, the book ended with an obituary outlining events as they transpired beyond the scope of this tale. It gave me a better sense of justice and finality for the story as a whole, and I liked that we got to see how things ended up instead of just how they ended when the plot came to its natural conclusion.

Conflicting impressions: As much as I liked the plot, the spooky elements weren’t quite spooky enough, and as a result, the action dragged.

Overall impressions: I am definitely becoming a gothic fiction fan. The old house full of sad memories, strange occurrences, and a mystery of love waiting to be uncovered. Gets me every time.

Here, Abigail Tamper is a servant girl in Greave Hall. The lord of the manor sequesters himself away for much of the time, and Abi’s only friend in the house, Lord Greave’s son, is off serving in the military. Enter Mrs. Cotton, the domineering sister-in-law to Lord Greave who tries to live above her station and treats her fellow servants like garbage. Abi is often the recipient of Mrs. Cotton’s abuse, and when we first meet her she is trying to run away.

Abi’s plight is depressing, and until she starts to witness ghostly acts, I have to admit that I found her quite boring. She’s a sad little thing, with not much hope in her world, and it was dreary to say the least. Once she witnesses her mother in the face of a medium Mrs. Cotton has secretly hired, Abi is convinced that the things gone missing and strange handprints found in unlikely places are her dead mother come back to deliver a message.

Tempting fate, Abi sneaks out during a dinner party to try and hire the medium to help her. Without any money, however, she’s forced to give up a sacred pocket watch that belonged to her father in order to walk away with nothing but a ouija board. Doom and gloom! I started to grow frustrated with the lack of options Abi faced, and started to wonder if we’d ever find out anything that could rescue us from boredom.

Luckily, the last third of the novel really picks up. Lord Greave’s son returns, and he’s up to no good. The tension in the house rises as he asserts himself over Lord Greave and steps on the toes of Mrs. Cotton. Abi uncovers more clues, and several surprising things happen that keep us wondering what will happen next.

This is a great read for fans of gothic fiction, but the story wasn’t quite compelling enough or scary enough for my tastes. Abi is a likable protagonist, and I wish I could have connected with her more. Though I felt for her plight, and particularly her unjust interactions with Mrs. Cotton, I didn’t become completely invested in her life. That emotional distance made it hard to ride the slower parts of the book, despite finding the overall story interesting.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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