Thinking back to childhood, some of the fondest memories of books that captivated me were those with big rambling houses, gateways into other times and places. Books are themselves portals that take you into another world, but those that contain portals within them (Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) lead the reader further and further away from real life, and into a story.
Sarah Baker’s debut novel takes more than one classic motif, and uses them to her advantage, spinning a new yarn with old tools. But it works – captivating and twisty, her use of classic ingredients makes a fantastic new dish.
Twelve-year-old Angela, orphaned in a tragic accident, is invited on holiday with her less than sympathetic aunt and her family. They arrive at a French holiday home – a crumbling old mansion with shut off rooms, falling apart barns, spooky grounds, and even spookier inhabitants. When Angela discovers a strange mirror in an abandoned room, she realises that the only way to uncover the truth about her present is to delve into the long ago past. Stepping through the mirror takes her back to 1898 where she meets a boy, sick with typhoid. Somehow saving him might mean that she can save herself.
One of the best things about this book is the pacing. It’s the kind of holiday read that children lap up – the plot leaps from moment to moment, each chapter leaving the reader slightly hanging, and a protagonist who won’t give up for a moment, but is active all the time – hunting for clues, roaming the house, focussed solely on finding the truth.
Because Angela is orphaned, and treated so badly by her ‘new family’; even remonstrated with in the first line by the head of the children’s home, the reader instantly feels on her side, and wishes for something good to happen for her.
This feeling strengthens throughout the book, as Aunt Cece and Angela’s cousins become more and more vile towards her – almost caricatured in their nastiness: reminiscent of evil replacement mothers throughout time, such as Cinderella’s evil stepmother and sisters. In the end it’s a classic tale of usurpation, like Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey in Matilda – as Aunt Cece is after Angela’s inheritance.
Baker introduces some fresh touches though in her portrayal of a loving friendship/budding romance between Angela and the boy through the mirror, as well as her clever incorporation of typhoid, which leads to some deeper thoughts and correlation between contagious diseases in the past and the present and what they represent. The villagers’ fear of contagion from the boy with typhoid is replicated in Angela’s modern-day sneezing and her cousins’ disgust and nastiness at what they might ‘catch’ from her. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
And there’s also, of course, a clear warning sign about messing with the past. By bringing her French boy something from the future, Angela may save herself, but also alter the past – which has consequences for the future. It’s a great touch, and explored further in an epilogue.
Despite being written in a light style, so that it’s easy to read and there is little description or unravelling of feelings, Baker touches on dark elements with her recall of Angela’s tragic accident and her exploration of the horrors of typhoid.
In the end, this is simply a well-plotted tale, immersive and fun, with lovely little twists and ghostly reminders of the past. Age 9+. You can buy it here.