Tania Unsworth has written a most compelling thriller for children, using a mixture of tense suspense and magical realism to tell a story of depth, mystery and adventure.
Daisy lives with her mother in a huge, crumbling mansion called Brightwood Hall. She has never left the grounds, so when her mother goes on a shopping trip and doesn’t return, Daisy is left completely alone. She has to make a crucial decision – should she venture into the wider world or wait at home in the house and surrounding gated grounds until her mother returns.
Then a stranger arrives, and secrets in her family, and those contained within Brightwood Hall, begin to be revealed and cast Daisy into more danger than she could possibly have imagined. She must decide again whether to protect the mansion and her ‘friends’ within, or whether to find help outside the gates.
As well as a weaving a spellbinding tale, Tania Unsworth has threaded immense depth into the book, with themes of memory and the power of imagination. Daisy’s mother is a hoarder – she keeps objects from each day as memories inside ‘Day Boxes’, which stack up inside the mansion. Added to this are Daisy’s own conversations with an imaginary friend, and her belief that the objects that make up the mansion are living and can talk with her – from the portraits lining the walls, to the topiary hedge shapes in the garden, to the animals roaming the grounds.
This magical realism enables her to explore her own mind and memory, and prepare her to battle the dangerous stranger who invades her space.
Of course, as with all great books about a character being alone, the protagonist has to resonate extremely strongly with the reader, and gain their sympathy – and Daisy does. She is likeable, introspective but interesting, and brave despite her increasing vulnerability. Her fears of abandonment, her anger at her mother, then her despair and loneliness, are tangible and realistic – as juxtaposed with the ‘magic’ of things around her. The two concepts spar brilliantly with each other – and the reader is left to decipher what is real and what isn’t – and what the mind does when left to its own devices, and how it deals with the world when it is fighting for survival.
The setting itself is striking and highly visual – the expansive grounds, some wild some tamed, the house with its towers of ‘Day Boxes’, old artefacts, and plentiful rooms – some shrouded and hidden – others open and comforting.
Yet despite the depth within the text, this is a thrilling adventure/mystery story that is easy to read – the plot skims along at pace, the characters are well-drawn and identifiable, and it promotes thought. It’s a highly memorable book, and one of my top reads so far this year. For age 9+. You should definitely read this book – and if you want to, you can buy it here.
I was sent a copy for review by Orion publishers, but also worked on some readers’ notes for this book.