Friday, December 07, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #341: Thornhill by Pam Smy

It can be difficult to talk coherently about a subgenre too new, or too small, to have a name. Before I saw this book, I might have called it "one of those weird novel/comics hybrids like the ones Brian Selznick does," since the format is a lot like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. But once there are two creators working in a particular style, it no longer belongs to either of them. And where there are two creators, there's probably more -- I've only seen Selznick and Smy, but there are probably people working in this area from other letters of the alphabet.

That style is pretty strict: a book, for younger readers, told in alternating viewpoints, one of which is in prose and the other in full-page cinematic illustrations. (I've tagged all of them as "Comics," but it's not really comics, since each page is a single image and the page-to-page transitions are much more like film than comics.) Oh, and, so far, the two stories need to be separated in time -- at least a generation. Again, there are at least three books in this subgenre, with two from Selznick and this 2017 book from Pam Smy, and I bet there are other similar books I haven't seen as well.

Smy's entry into this small, quirky subgenre is Thornhill, about bullying, silence, revenge, the yearning for true friendship, and the dark, forbidding orphanage of the title, in the British provincial town of Midchester.

In 1982, Mary Baines is one of the dwindling number of children living at a cold Victorian pile called the Thornhill Institute; the place is being shut down and all of the children are being re-homed elsewhere. Mary is quiet and alone, living in a garret room on the top floor and afflicted with a selective mutism that keeps her from talking in groups and often even one-on-one. She prefers to spend her time by herself, walking through the gardens and making intricate puppets. But another, unnamed girl delights in tormenting and bullying Mary, and she's just come back to Thornhill after a failed "re-homing." All of the other girls, and even the staff, love this unnamed girl, and the staff doesn't realize that she orchestrates nasty, sneaky attacks on Mary. They just see this girl saying that she wants to be Mary's friend, and get involved to urge Mary not to be standoffish, to let this girl be her "friend."

We read Mary's story in her diary, day by day.

In the modern day, a girl of about the same age, twelve to fourteen, has just moved with her (widowed? divorced?) father into a house nearby. We never see her father, who works long hours and leaves her alone. Her window looks out over a back garden towards the decaying, boarded-up Thornhill; occasionally we see newspaper stories in her sections bemoaning the fact that all attempts to redevelop it have failed for more than thirty years. We eventually learn she is named Ella Clarke.

Ella is also solitary, at least as we see her. She's fascinated by Thornhill and particularly the figure of a slim blonde girl of about her age who she sees, first in glances and then for longer and longer, leading Ella into the ruined orphanage. Eventually, Ella finds Mary's diary, and knows the things the reader already knows.

We see Ella's story, in double-page black-and-white art, full of texture and washes in various shades of grey. Smy is not working in anything like the traditional comics pencil-then-ink-then-color-overlay; she's an illustrator using moody tools suitable for this particular story.

The two stories intersect, of course. The reader hopes for some kind of happy resolution, a surprising twist in 1982, a redemption or transformation in 2017. There are surprises at the ending -- and not even the ones I was expecting. Thornhill is a chilly, subtly creepy book that ends as it begins, and I was impressed and gratified by that.

There are things that seemed to be loose ends, though, and I wonder if Smy hid those ends somewhere and I failed to pick up on them. Most centrally: what is the name of Mary's tormentor, and does she have any connection to the 2017 story? I won't say the answer is not in Thornhill, but I didn't catch it. I do have an explanation in my head, but I always like to check those against the author's actual words -- I don't know if Smy would agree with me.

In any case, Thornhill is a neat, distinctive, spooky book, suitable for tweens and up who like creepy stories. I actually liked it better than Selznick's books, which I suppose means this -- whatever we decide to call it -- is a viable subgenre.

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