After her mother abandons them, Elizabeth and her scientist father Dr Murmur move to Witheringe House, his childhood home. Dr Murmur is introspective and sad, always working on his manuscripts with no time for his daughter. Elizabeth finds consolation in her imaginary friend and alter ego, Zenobia, who is her opposite in many ways.
Witheringe House is grey and bleak, shrouded in fog, its garden a tangle of weeds. A clump of hedge reveals an overgrown maze with a dead-looking tree at its centre. Zenobia is sure that the place is haunted, and, with Elizabeth reluctantly in tow, sets about locating the ghost, or Spirit Presence, that she believes lives there. Together, they explore the house, even the East Wing, which is out of bounds. In the dust-filled nursery, Elizabeth sees the face of a young girl in the shifting patterns of the flowery wallpaper and soon stumbles on other unsettling elements – a tombstone dedicated to her father’s younger sister, a mysterious gardener who speaks in a snake-like hiss, an abandoned red shoe and a mirror that ripples like a pool of water.
The story, essentially about a child craving recognition and love, is the author’s first novel. Well written, its gothic setting works well and is convincingly creepy and suspenseful. The secondary characters – the distant father, hovering housekeeper and likeable governess – provide the backdrop and build suspense. The main characters, Elizabeth and Zenobia, complement each other – the former is timid, cautious and lonely, the latter obsessive, outspoken and flamboyant – and their interaction results in tension, drama and also humour. By the end of the story, Elizabeth finds courage – and the beginnings of happiness.