Wednesday, June 16, 2010

White Crow - Marcus Sedgwick

I suspect that in other hands this hot, intense, strange tale would be an overblown behemoth, part historical novel and part modern parable. In Sedgwick's hands however we have a pared down glittering gem for older YA readers who are interested in things that are obscure and obscured.
Rebecca and her father have run away to the remote village of Winterfold for the summer to escape media attention. The village is living but dead, it is slowly falling into the sea, house by house, church by church, all that remains are three streets. Winterfold is full of abandoned houses and churches where you open the main doors to find yourself looking out to sea because the end of the church has been reclaimed by nature. Rebecca is lonely and isolated having been removed from her busy London life and is beginning to realise that her friends might not be friends after all and her boyfriend is prepared to dump her. She is estranged from her father who is coping with his own difficulties, her mother having died several years ago. She does not realise that having arrived in Winterfold she is being watched.

'She couldn't have been anyone, because the moment I saw her beautiful face I knew I loved her, and I knew she would love me too.

I knew.'

Rebecca is being watched by Ferelith, a girl who left school at 14 when she had to explain Game Theory to her maths teacher and who has educated herself, particularly in human behaviour

'because nothing is more important to learn in life than the interaction of a human being with another human being'

Sedgwick has allowed us access to the thoughts of both girls, as they both narrate the story of their friendship over that hot summer. But are they truly friends and what are Ferelith's real intentions? As the summer progresses and Rebecca is pulled further and further from the conventional life she once inhabited we are left asking what or who is Ferelith.

Interweaved with the story of the two girls is the personal journal of the Rector of Winterfold in 1798, a glutton and a fornicator who has fallen short of the standards of his office. He is filled with doubt, struggling to keep his faith, obsessed with hell and unable to visualise heaven. When the abandoned Hall is rented by Dr Barrieux, the two strike up a friendship and find that they are consumed by the same questions - What happens to us after we die? Is there a heaven and is there a hell? Their experiments into these questions are the subject of local legend over 200 years later.

As the hot summer continues, the tensions between Rebecca and Ferelith mount and we begin to doubt Ferelith's sanity. When the weather eventually breaks and the games are over the girls discover the secret of The Hall and the truth of those experiments 200 years ago.

Sedgwick has provided a note at the end of my proof copy of the book (I don't know whether they it will be included in the final book) in which he states that the title refers to a quote by William James (brother to Henry)

"If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black you mustn't seek to show that no crows are: it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white"

On the evidence of this book Sedgwick would seem to believe that there is life after death but that the Devil is in us all. In getting us to this point we are shown characters that inhabit lives of loss, loss of faith, loss of certainty and who are searching for answers that give meaning to their lives. These characters are easily manipulated by those around them, the small decisions they make slowly leading them to a place they might not wish to be. And at the end of the book we are left questioning what exactly is Ferelith, is she truly the White Crow of the title or is she the fevered and frightened imagining of a teenage girl.

I am not completely sure I understand everything that Sedgwick is aiming for in this novel - and this can be a good thing. I will be pondering the story of these three characters long after I close the book, turning and turning their fates until I reach an accommodation between my understanding, the things I don't understand and the things that there will never be an answer to - until finally I can put the book away.

'White Crow' will be released on 1st July 2010.

My thanks to Orion for providing a copy of the book.

Marcus Sedgwick has provided a list of music that Ferelith listens to on her ipod here. Unfortunately those of us in Ireland can not access Spotify so I have provided a link to five of the songs on YouTube - enjoy.

Blue Roses - Rebecca

Julie London - Cry Me A River

My Chemical Romance - This Is How I Disappear

Sonic Youth - 'Cross the Breeze


  1. Great music, id read the book for that let alone the great review :)

  2. Great My Chem fan so love the music and loved the book. There is so much going on and loads to think about after finishing it. Marcus Sedgwick said on his website that it's a 'modern Gothic horror story' and 'not a bundle of laughs' and I'd agree - but this only encourages me to like the book more! Not sure what this says about me.