Briony Larkin is a witch. Her stepmother told her so before she died, a death for which Briony feels responsible. Briony’s youthful temper and magic also caused her twin sister Rose to be developmentally disabled. Briony avoids the swamp and the Old Ones that call to her, sullenly cares for Rose, and hides from the world. Until Eldric, an energetic university dropout with a gift for making everyone around him feel at ease, comes to stay at the Larkin home. As Briony starts to see herself through his eyes, she wonders how a witch like her could have a normal-girl life.
This is a Jellicoe Road. That’s become my shorthand for a wonderful but difficult book that I want to put down early, but stick with because a reader I trust assures me, “Stick with it; it all comes together in the end.” And so I pass this on to you: You will probably be confused. If you, like me, have limited patience for protagonists whose defining characteristic is emo self-loathing, Briony will start off annoying the crap out of you. You will be suspicious of everyone, and not sure if there’s a single character worth hanging your hat on.
That’s just what they want you to think. Stick with it; it all comes together in the end.
I hesitate to say much else, because the pleasure of this book is so much in the unfolding of secrets. The setting is a small town in Victorian England that is just getting a train station, but has an earlier-century habit of hanging witches; the descriptions are appropriately creepy and claustrophobic. This is dark stuff, on occasion, but with trademark YA uplift at the end. Briony’s language is repetitive and quirky in a way that is trying to be poetic, and will feel that way to many readers, but often the poetry felt too “high school lit mag” to me:
We were to have new clothes.
We were to have new clothes because I tried to bargain with the Boggy Mun and he outwitted me. I should feel guilty, but I don’t. Father shouldn’t feel guilty, but he does. We were to have new clothes because I made Rose sick.
This, to me, is Hell.
On and on ring the lunatic bells.
And the love story? It feels mature (such a relief). It’s not good enough to have a relationship that’s fun for awhile; oh no, in so much YA these days, he needs to be your One True Soulmate Schmoopypants, and I don’t buy it. Most of us are far too un-formed in high school to luck into our dream partner. This is one of the rare young literary relationships that I believe might actually work out.
(This is a conversation for another post, but it occurs to me that a lot of YA romances these days follow the conventions of adult romance, in that the couple needs to get married — or at least imply that they will. Paranormals, of course, often take that to the next level — they’ll get married for all eternity. Why is this? Teen romances used to have their own standards, in which a fun, healthy relationship was plenty — why isn’t that good enough anymore? Or am I wrong? While I read a lot of books with love stories (I read YA at a girls’ school library, after all), I admittedly don’t read a lot of romances. (Ever wonder why this blog is called Parenthetical? Uh-huh.))
Read-alikes: Graceling! In the way it drops you in the middle of the action, in the maturity of the love story, plus in one other way I won’t get into. It also plays with the self-hating unreliable narrator in similar ways to A Long Long Sleep.
Cover: It sucks. I hate to be that blunt, but it is exactly wrong in every way for this book. If the cover makes you go, “Ew, historical paranormal romance; over it,” you will probably like the book because it is in many ways the exact opposite of that.