Sunday, November 13, 2016

Wormwood Mire, by Judith Rossell

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Judith Rossell's second book in the Stella Montgomery series is a tale full of mystery and imagination.

Stella Montgomery’s three awful aunts, Aunt Deliverance, Aunt Temperance and Aunt Condolence, have received a letter from their cousin Frederick. He has decided to send his children to the family estate, Wormwood Mire, to have them educated. In a fit of generosity, he has extended an invitation to Stella to join her cousins, Hortense and Strideforth. And so, Stella is packed off on a train by herself to visit the mysterious Wormwood Mire.

Wormwood Mire itself is a huge, puzzling house, full of secret doors, hidden hallways and other inexplainable curiosities. The house was build by Stella’s great-great-grandfather, Wilberforce Montgomery. A great and adventurous traveller, Wilberforce was a collector of rare plants and animals, some of them quite deadly. He brought many strange creatures and plants back with him to Wormwood Mire, without much foresight as to what their future legacy might be.

Hortense and Strideforth, Stella’s cousins, turn out to be unusual characters. Hortense is almost mute, communicating more with her pets, Henry, a mollymawk, and Anya, an ermine. Strideforth is fascinated with science and an inventor. Stella also meets Mr and Mrs Burdock, who work as housekeepers, and their grandson Jem. Miss Araminter, the governess, is a specialist in botany.

There are many strange goings on at Wormwood Mire, and stranger people still. In the nearby lake a terrifying creature lives. When it bites other animals - and even people - it turns them to stone. Could the creature be something that Wilberforce Montgomery brought back from one of his exotic travels, now grown out of control? And what to make of the menacing Mr Flint, the dentist? He likes to collect teeth as he feels they tell him the secrets of their owners. Or the suspiciously hostile Mrs Spindleweed, who runs the local sweet shop? How much do they know about the mysterious disappearance of Stella’s mother and her twin sister?

Wormwood Mire is the second Stella Montgomery mystery from Melbourne writer and illustrator Judith Rossell, following on from Withering-by-Sea. Like its predecessor, Wormwood Mire is a brooding, moody story full of creeping suspense. It’s an Edgar Allan Poe-like tale of mystery and imagination, something you might imagine the young Bronte sisters conjuring up at Haworth Parsonage on a wild and stormy night. The genius of the book is how Rossell plumps every page full with so much gorgeous detail. She works like a consummate art director - every piece of furniture, every household decoration, right down to music boxes, paper weights and books, is chosen for its perfect effect. Clearly Rossell has been immersing herself in even more 19th century literature and history since writing Withering-by-Sea. The love and fascination with the era comes through in every page.

Wormwood Mire is a perfectly realised world of unceasing wonder, mystery and suspense that is sustained right up to its last heart-stopping page. How dull the real world seems after having been immersed in the strange goings on at Wormwood Mire.

Wormwood Mire: A Stella Montgomery Intrigue, by Judith Rossell. Published by ABC Books. ISBN:  9780733333019  RRP: $22.99

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