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A dark dark basement in a dark dark house...
White Crow - Marcus Sedgwick
Member Name: brokenangel
White Crow - Marcus Sedgwick
Date: 23/06/11, updated on 25/05/13 (39 review reads)
Advantages: well paced, does what it says in the blurb, atmospheric
Disadvantages: shifting perspectives a little confusing and mean characters seem underdeveloped
-- A dark, dark tale --
Rebecca has been dragged to spend the summer in boring, isolated Winterfold. Not cool. Her relationship with her dad is not great (they barely speak) and her relationships with her city friends suddenly seem to be non-existent. It's barely worth owning a mobile phone. Then she meets the rather unusual Ferelith. Highly intelligent but oddly friendless, Ferelith quickly develops an obsession with Rebecca and shares secrets with her, secrets about an old experiment that took place in 1798, deadly secrets...
So it definitely sounds like a modern gothic thriller. Is it? Teen angst and friendship problems feature strongly, so it's definitely modern. There's plenty of stormy weather and Ferelith is rather creepy, which ticks some gothic boxes, and the opening chapters are reminiscent of a clichéd horror movie in which the innocent young woman wanders about looking beautiful without ever realising her every move is being monitored, so there's the 'thriller' aspect. Less facetiously, the story does do what it says on the tin: it is creepy and dramatic; it does build suspense successfully. Everyone seems to be hiding secrets, and not about what they had for lunch. I felt that the early pages whetted my interest nicely. The author avoids the clunking cliffhanger trap while skilfully creating suspense through what is not said.
Sedgwick also captures relationships well, whether that's the tension between Rebecca and her father, or Rebecca's intuitive distrust of Ferelith. Every visit described between the two 'friends' leaves Rebecca and the reader feeling uneasy. I felt that this was a real strength of the book. Ferelith, despite clearly being vulnerable herself, is presented in such a way that young readers are likely to fear for Rebecca's safety. That said, Rebecca herself is not an immensely likeable heroine: she mopes, sulks and fails to support her father. Interestingly, as in du Maurier's 'Rebecca', the purportedly malevolent character is by far the more interesting and I would have liked to read a little bit more about Ferelith's experiences. I felt that she was a very sympathetic character and that this made the story more interesting to read - she was not simply monstrous.
Ferelith is given her own voice in places and this helps to create the sense of danger in the story. It also creates a good sense of balance as the main part of the story focuses on the girls' friendship. Their story was creepy but believable, even when it crossed with something darker...
-- A dark, dark house... --
In typical gothic style, Sedgwick uses fake documentation to create a chill and develop a point of view. A holy man fears hell; how far will he go to assuage those fears? The rector's short, often elliptical diary entries hint at his developing relationship with a doctor, a newcomer to the sleep village. Just as in the modern story, the inhabitant's relationship with the newcomer spirals into something dark and unhealthy.
This is the ancient horror lurking in the background that is emphasised in the book's blurb. The story of 1798 is told concurrently and the perspective switches repeatedly and frequently between Rebecca, Ferelith and the Rector. I found this story to be less interesting as I found the rector's obsession difficult to understand (being not in the least bit inclined towards a belief in heaven or hell myself) and felt that his diary entries were often rather hysterical (as in clinical hysteria, not amused laughter). I did not like him and I think this was intentional on Sedgwick's part - this is the real villain. And yet he is rather bumbling and obsessive rather than evil.
The real gothic element of the text came from the setting and the weather and was highly effective. I felt parts of the girls' story were told in a very atmospheric way. I also liked that the fear in the story stemmed from psychological reaction rather than scenes of blood and gore. In particular, the rector heightens the reader's feelings of horror when he briefly mentions blood, as much by his detachment from the situation as from the actual situation. I don't like reading about the act of severing limbs and wouldn't ever watch 'Saw' so I was glad that, as would be suitable for young teen readers, Sedgwick preferred to create fear rather than vomit.
-- A twisting tale --
After an engaging opening the plot is suitably gripping until the end and there is a suitable twist which is shocking but, on reflection, fitting. There is a sort of epilogue which ends the story on a final chill and encourages the reader to reconsider the provenance of some of the documentation. I thought the ending was suitable and effective.
I did, however, find the shifting perspectives problematic. My objection was simply that it was a hassle moving back and forth and that, especially early on, the story felt a little disjointed. My students noted that they were disappointed because they wanted to spend more time reading about each character to give them a chance to really engage with the characters and their choices. They didn't like the short (often very short) chapters and wanted the viewpoints to be more sustained. Perhaps the book would be better with a bit more space given to each, but then it would lose its pace and perhaps its darkness. I think it is a flaw but I am not sure how it could be resolved.
Overall, I thought this was a well paced, gothic but not gory read in which the two storylines came together effectively to create a dramatic conclusion. If you don't mind a little initial confusion created by the shifting narration, then you might well find this mildly interesting. That said, I think it is a teen read, suited perhaps to 11-16 year olds in particular due to the themes, events and challenging structure. I don't think it is a crossover book; there is not enough substance to grip a mature reader. Can it win the Carnegie? It's suitably complex in style but possibly not in subject matter. Would I read something by Sedgwick again? Yes...but probably only if I had to.
Summary: a gothic thriller with suitable chill but little depth