Romilly grows up with her father, an artist, in a ramshackle house surrounded by a wild garden. She vaguely remembers a life before, when she was 4 and they lived in London with her mother, and also a different time when they lived an itinerant life. But her father won’t answer questions about where her mother is or their former life. When her father decides to write a book about her and her siamese cat, he feels like he has created a gift for her, and the illustrations are full of little clues and details. But after publication, the book is rumoured to contain clues to a treasure, and their lives are changed forever.
I love stories about mysterious books, family secrets and weird houses full of old things left behind and forgotten. And this book has all three so I was really excited to read this. Though Romilly is about 9 when the book starts and reaches about 15 by the end, it’s not really YA, or more accurately, it’s something I think a wide age range would enjoy, if you like a bit of Gothic style fiction.
I loved the location. The plot takes place almost entirely in the house or on it’s grounds. I really felt like the book created a world within this house and the land around it. The garden has a fountain with a gargoyle statuary, Romilly finds dusty taxidermy to make friends with and vintage parasols. All kinds of things. And I like that she also, as a child, is gruesomely cheerful, thinking there may be human remains somewhere around too. I loved this, and wanted to explore the dusty, decaying place myself. It feels like a place where magic is possible, even though some of it might not be good magic.
Into this life, Romilly’s Dad pours his imagination and builds a life for him and his daughter. I loved their relationship, it’s the beating heart of the book, for me. He adores her, tells her stories and tries to do the best by her, often by allowing her to life a wild, free life. I like this because it fits the story and the characters, and the idea that Romilly and her father are devoted to each other in many ways, so she can’t always see that she’s a bit neglected, the big gaps in his parenting. For example, because of the fame of her father’s book, at a certain point she starts home schooling, but there’s no real lesson plan. There is a reason for a lot of this chaos which becomes apparent over the course of the book, but I liked this aspect.
I will say, though, that it gave me a sense of foreboding while reading it, though not in an unenjoyable way. Perhaps it’s my bias, but with public’s obsession with the books about Romilly and the treasure they think it leads to, and while her father lets her do whatever she wants, I felt like she was vulnerable to some very nefarious types. Some of whom are talked about in the book. And as someone who wasn’t being socialised and learning about the world, I worried about what her life was going to be like, in the future. Also, her one friend has an odd, cruel, destructive streak, and there is a weeping woman drawn in her father’s illustrations, while another character carries scissors at all times to kill unexplained murderous bugs. There is a certain savagery or violence to some of the things that happen or the imagery, and I was nervous about what that foreshadowed. Was something truly dark and awful going to happen to this poor girl?
A thread of sadness runs through this book as well, and it’s well woven in. It’s not a depressing book at all, it’s more that family secrets and growing up, change, all these things are part of each of our stories, and that can be bittersweet. The book alludes to pirates, witches, the circus, ghosts, secrets hidden in books, and the nature of reality, which all add up to a wonderful darkly magical atmosphere, a child’s imagination as an island, keeping the real world at bay outside. And yet, the circus is a real place as well as a place of wonder and magic. What else in this book is real too? You know, mostly, by the end of the book, a peice at a time.
When the author described the paintings that Romilly’s father made for the book, I kept thinking of Grame Base’s lush books like Animalia and The Eleventh Hour. Books from my own childhood, full of mystery that I still enjoy. This is an incredible debut novel, and I highly recommend it. It made me want to enter into the winding hallways and dusty attics of the house, but also made me think of my own growing up. I loved the way the book was full of love and imagination, but also dark secrets and imperfect people. And a loyal cat called Monty.
Read It If: you like books about the father-daughter bond, books with imagination and stories about the dramas of life and family secrets. It’s a bit of a gothic tale and is a real book lovers book.
Thank you Harper Collins Canada for the ARC of this book for review. All opinions are my own, honest thoughts.
The Book Of Hidden Wonders it out on Septemer 1st 2020.