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Thornhill

Review

Thornhill

Loneliness can be absolutely excruciating. When we have no one to turn to in times of trouble, no one to share our joys and our sorrows with, we retreat into ourselves. Over time, we can retreat so deeply that we disappear altogether. Illustrator Pam Smy’s authorial debut, THORNHILL, presents a subdued and unique take on the loneliness of youth that can still be appreciated by readers of all ages. It also happens to be a delightfully gloomy ghost story.

What sets THORNHILL apart from most other YA chillers, though, is its restraint --- something which evidences itself both in the content of the book and in the presentation. There are no ghoulish and gory flourishes, chain rattling spirits set on vengeance or terrorizing the living, only two girls: one dead and one alive. This is a simple story told methodically and with a momentum that builds through the accumulation of small things.

"THORNHILL is a rare feat in that it is both accessible and challenging, simple on the surface yet deeply complex in the details, and a book for young children that doesn’t condescend to them while still engaging with adult themes."

Smy tells us of the lives of Ella and Mary, a pair of isolated young women living decades apart, but whose circumstances draw them together across time and across planes of existence. Mary’s story is told to us through entries in her journal, cataloging the time she spends stuck in Thornhill Orphanage in the early 1980s, while Ella’s present-day story is conveyed through illustrated passages, largely free of text. Occasionally we’ll get a handwritten note or newspaper article to convey background information in Ella’s modern day timeline, but it is a great credit to Smy’s storytelling and illustration that she can choreograph these sequences almost like a silent film.

Mary’s story is utterly heartbreaking. She is the black sheep of Thornhill for no reason other than her oddness (Mary is selectively mute, but to such an extent that most assume she cannot speak at all). The staff, with one exception, are mostly indifferent to her, and the other orphans bully her relentlessly --- most of all she is tormented by an outright wretched girl referred to only as, “She,” or, “Her.” In fact, all of the bullying Mary experiences is at the direction of Her, who happens to be the most beloved orphan in Thornhill, doted on eagerly by the other children. Out of desperation, Mary retreats to an attic room, where she lives alone and works with single-minded dedication on her true passion: doll making.

Ella’s story is largely built out of inference as, again, it is conveyed primarily through illustrations. Her mother has recently passed and she and her father have relocated to a new home whose backyard abuts the ruins of Thornhill. Her loneliness derives from being the new girl in town along with her father’s long hours at work --- we never actually get to meet him in the story. One afternoon, while unpacking, Ella notices a figure in the attic window of the old orphanage, and it’s not long before she heads over to investigate. This small step sets the events of THORNHILL in motion as the mystery of Mary’s life and death begin to unravel before Ella’s eyes. And although the horror of this book is mostly the existential kind, Mary’s love of doll making pays off in a big way; saying any more than that would spoil a wonderful reveal.

THORNHILL is a rare feat in that it is both accessible and challenging, simple on the surface yet deeply complex in the details, and a book for young children that doesn’t condescend to them while still engaging with adult themes. If I could, I would never leave THORNHILL.       

Reviewed by Killian Walsh on August 29, 2017

Thornhill
by Pam Smy