The Childtastic Advent Spectacular went a little awry, for which I apologise. A variety of events (both good and bad) conspired against the daily postings but, on New Year’s Eve, I’ve found the time to sit down and write my final post of 2017 and I can’t think of a better book to dedicate this review to. It is Thornhill, written and illustrated by the amazingly talented Pam Smy.
When this book came out several months ago, the rave reviews convinced me that this was something I needed to read as it contained everything I love in fiction – it was a children’s/teen book, the cover and inside pages screamed Gothic, with their palette of white, greys and blacks, and the immediate air of mystery was unease was apparent. However, I hesitated. As regular readers of this blog know, I am always reticent about graphic novels and comics. It’s not that I don’t understand their appeal and skill: my brain just becomes confused when presented with what it sees as competing words and images. One graphic novel in the past proved my suspicions incorrect: Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol, which I read as part of my research for my MA dissertation. Interestingly, both these books touch on similar subjects – teenage girls who are lonely, unpopular and victims of bullying, areas which lend themselves well to the modern Gothic.
What it’s about
Thornhill intertwines the stories of two girls, set in the same timeframe but 32 years apart. The words belong to Mary, a lonely, selectively mute girl living an isolated life in 1982 in Thornhill Orphanage, bullied by the other girls – one in particular who seems disturbingly bent on terrorising her. Mary remains in her attic bedroom, finding solace in books such as The Secret Garden and Jane Eyre while creating dolls based on her favourite fictional characters.
The pictures belong primarily to Ella, who has just moved into a house that backs onto the now derelict Thornhill site. Ella’s father is rarely home and she is left to fend for herself most of the time – eating, sleeping and existing in silence. As Ella gradually unpacks her belongings, including pictures of her and her mysteriously absent mother, she spies a young girl in both the delapidated Thornhill house and gardens and tries to track her down. As the days progress, Ella discovers who the distant figure is and sets about trying to win her trust and friendship by repairing destroyed and damaged dolls that she finds scattered around the grounds. In Mary, Ella sees a kindred spirit – a lonely soul who just wants a friend in sad times.
A page-turner of suspense and sadness
Yesterday evening, I sat down with Thornhill and I didn’t stop reading until gone 1am. It might be more accurate to say that I couldn’t stop reading until I devoured the book. I needed to find out what exactly happened to Mary all those years ago, and how Ella’s present and future fitted in with her past. What struck me hardest as I read Mary’s diary and examined Ella’s pictures was the immense sadness and empathy I felt for both girls.
In the diary entries, Mary’s loneliness and fear leap off the pages. In primary school, I was similarly bullied by a girl who just never seemed to tire of making my life hell – from the usual name calling and sniggering to gathering an entire class of my peers to wait for me to arrive at school one day and jeer that I had no friends. Mary’s experience brought these memories back to vivid life and I wanted to leap into the book and stand by her side and send her tormentors running. And then turn to the adults and make them accountable for not helping her, for turning a blind eye to events around them and allowing it to happen.
Ella’s pictorial story is just as emotive. The pictures of her with her mother, with the inscribed dedication I will always love you. Mum x are heartbreaking. Just where is her mother – is she dead or has she abandoned her daughter? We never know, and we never see Ella’s father either – just scrawled apologies for working late. The close-ups of Ella’s sadness represent a thousand words of grief and it is this juxtaposition of storytelling in Thornhill that makes it so compelling.
At the heart of this tale is the reality of loneliness at a young and vulnerable age. While Mary is selectively mute, Ella is forced into it. With no one to talk to at home, and full of painful emotions, it is a clever decision by Smy not to give her any words on the pages to reflect her silent fate (although admittedly towards the end, she does express herself in brief notes to Mary, although these are always directed towards the girl she wishes to befriend, rather than expressing her own sentiments). In some ways, though, the illustrations are more heartbreaking than words could be.
Observant readers will notice the inclusion of novels that feature lonely female protagonists – apart from Jane Eyre (whose mysterious house is called Thornfield) and The Secret Garden, there is also Rebecca – another young heroine who is haunted by a past presence whose intentions aren’t always entirely clear. For me, this was also a warning that perhaps Mary’s presence isn’t as wholesome and innocent as it might appear. The fact that she lives in the attic in Thornhill is suggestive of another character in Jane Eyre whose sanity is called into question raises doubts in the reader, especially since lightning and storms seem attracted to the old mansion. There is also one spread in the book that deeply unsettled me when I saw it and made me wonder what the reality of the story was. It’s hard to include this without giving the story away somewhat but it was the one spread, fairly early on, that made me shiver.
I really cannot recommend this novel highly enough and I recommend that:
a – you invest in the hardback version if possible; it complements the subject matter more than a paperback could. The weightiness, the blackness of the book lends it a physical air that speaks volumes.
b – you read it in one sitting. Set aside a few hours, preferably as dusk is falling, and immerse yourself. You won’t regret it.
Thornhill, by Pam Smy, is published by David Fickling Books.