THORNHILL (Book Review)

Written and illustrated by: Pam Smy

Published in the UK by: David Fickling Books / Publication date: 27th August 2017

Pages: 544


Weighing in at a daunting 544 pages, APU graduate and Cambridge lecturer Pam Smy’s debut solo work (the first she has both written and illustrated) is actually a deceptively quick read, and one which I blasted through in a matter of hours.

Part epistolary novel (that’s a prose piece comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, or – as is the case here – diary entries) and part graphic novel, Thornhill unravels the fate of the eponymous children’s institute through dual timelines, each presented in alternating, interwoven plots.

In 1982, young Mary’s lonely final days in the soon-to-be-closed home for the abandoned is relayed to us through the bullied, hermitised, doll-maker’s pitiful own journal pages. Meanwhile, in the present day, Ella has moved in to a house which overlooks the now dilapidated and boarded-up former orphanage. When Ella spots a shadowy figure in Thornhill’s window, she is motivated to investigate, making her way into the building’s overgrown gardens and unlocking Mary’s tragic fate and the effect it has on Thornhill’s future and reputation…

Ella’s tale is not told but seen, through multiple consecutive black-and-white illustrations. Smy’s drawing style is thick, bold and adequately gloomy, evoking the requisite gothic atmosphere of a ghost story. With Ella’s pages easy to flick through (each picture covers a double spread, some merely zoom in or open out from the previous one) and two or three black pages separate Ella’s pictures from Mary’s diary, no doubt acknowledging the time difference), it’s no wonder I zipped through the book in half a day.

Perhaps purposefully, the parallel plots are not immediately made clear, with small clues (like modern technology or calendars on the wall) rewarding the eagled-eyed. This helps add another layer of mystery to what is, in truth, a rather simplistic (if emotionally poignant) tale. Critic’s comparisons between this and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline are easy to make given the handmade dolls in both stories, but despites shades of haunting darkness, Thornhill doesn’t hold a candle to Gaiman’s creepy modern classic.

CR@B’s Claw Score: 3 stars

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