By Marty Mulrooney
White Crow is the latest novel from award-winning children’s author Marcus Sedgwick, published this month by Orion. I have been finding more and more recently that supposed ‘young adult’ category books are often beating adult novels hands down. I am happy to say that White Crow is no exception. Following the rapidly entwining lives of two young girls in the sleepy English seaside village of Winterfold, it is a story both chilling and beautiful in equal measures.
As Rebecca comes to, she’s dimly aware of a presence close by her, but when she opens her eyes, there’s no one. At least, not at first.
She sits up and sees the girl there, standing by the cliff edge, looking down at the beach. The girl turns and smiles.
The main plot of White Crow follows Rebecca, a young girl who, for reasons initially unknown, has moved to Winterfold with her father in the dead heat of summer. Their relationship is strained and it is hinted at that their move was one of reluctant necessity, caused by some unspoken, devastating event. They are certainly on the run from something, but what?
Cutting into the narrative like a knife, contrasting sections are delivered in bold font, first person accounts from the mind of Ferelith, a dark and mysterious girl who takes an instant interest in Rebecca. But does she genuinely want to befriend her, or are there more sinister plans being set in motion?
Now of course, if someone could show you a white crow, everything would be overturned in a moment.
But all crows are black.
And in the same way, you conclude that no one lives after death. There is no ‘other side’. There is no white crow.
But, supposing I said I had seen a white crow? Just one. A single white crow.
The relationship between these two girls is the driving force of the entire novel. It sweeps you up and won’t let you go. Like Rebecca, I often wondered whether Ferelith was actually dangerous or just odd, a harmless weirdo or genuinely psychotic. Her fascination with death and the dark history of the village borders on the terrifying. You almost want to scream into the book at some points, because you know what Ferelith is thinking and that Rebecca has been fooled, unaware.
Then at other times, a hug between the two feels so right and perfect when read from the page, two lost souls who hate and love each other all at once, that you actually pause with the sadness of it all. You feel the emptiness inside them both and want them to fill the gaps together… but for some reason, you also feel afraid. Something isn’t right. Yet even then, not all is as it seems…
Impressively, the book also has a third driving force in the form of an unnamed man of the cloth, writing in his diary over two centuries prior. His guilt-riddled scrawling and religious doubts and fears only intensify as he begins to experiment with the newly arrived Dr Beaurieux. But why does he fear hell so much? And can this pair of men, one of God and one of Science, truly be summoning angels and devils in Winterfold Hall?
And so this young man has become our first subject, and though my hopes were high, the results were low.
I scorn myself to record it herein, but we learned nothing.
Not a single thing.
The blood! The blood!
Winterfold itself is as much a main character as Rebecca, Ferelith or this long dead holy man. Being slowly eaten by the sea, much of the old buildings are cordoned off and half collapsed upon the edge of a huge cliff. This skeletal ghost town, hidden from the main village by trees and undergrowth, is Ferelith’s playground: she delights in drawing Rebecca there, telling her stories of death and the macabre.
This is beautifully contrasted with moments of real warmth between the two girls: jumping garden fences and issuing dares, buying undercooked soggy chips at the local pub, drinking wine and lazing in the afternoon sun. Sedgwick has an extraordinary gift of being able to blur the lines between individual themes and characters. This is a book that deals with many questions about mortality and death, yet it never forces these ideas down your throat. Likewise, you warm to Ferelith even as she terrifies you. This is a love story and a horror story all rolled into one.
There are moments at the end of White Crow that actually made my breath catch at the back of my throat. I never expected a book featuring two young girls, aimed at younger readers, to connect with me and affect me so profoundly. Yet the ending is so shocking, perfect and right, that it wouldn’t surprise me if it manages to reduce many readers to tears. This is a scary, heart-warming, intelligent book. The words of my review have in all likelihood not done it justice. Hopefully my final score will.
10 OUT OF 10