The Book of Hidden Wonders
(Note: this title is published in the UK asThe Illustrated Child).
The Book of Hidden Wonders is one big old dark, depressing slog of a novel, only enlivened by the skill required to tell the tale. Its treatment of childhood leans more towards Tennessee Williams than JM Barrie, though teens weaned on Shirley Jackson will likely love it.
Romilly Kemp is the apple of her artist father’s eye, and the subject of his work. The lead character of a book series about her and her cat, Monty – unmistakably so, thanks to the mole on the character’s cheek and her red hair – Romilly enjoys life in her isolated world and the thrill of being immortalized, but eventually begins to resent being the subject of her father’s frightening, heavily illustrated books. Due to his alcoholism and devotion to his art, he often leaves Romilly alone for long periods of time, and her mind is apt to wander.
Braër House, a tumble-down cottage in the English countryside, is a pretty but isolated place, and Romilly has only one friend – Stacey, who mainly lives elsewhere and infrequently comes to visit. Romilly makes no friends in school, and she and her father have little contact with the outside world.
Soon, the Kemp Treasure Girl series takes off and makes her father the toast of the country – and while it improves their life together financially, it does not erase Romilly’s loneliness, even as the outside world invades their properties. Rumors have spread that there are cryptic clues in her father’s illustrations which will lead to the uncovering of a buried treasure, and there are creeps who believe it is located on their property.
Soon, clouds begin to cover Romilly’s little world. Her father’s eccentricities become more severe. Her grandmother appear out of nowhere, providing comfort for Romilly. Is her father hiding clues about the true identity and locale of her mother, who allegedly left the family with Romilly was four? Does the dark secret have to do with something Romilly has buried in the past?
A heads-up: this book contains graphic depictions of animal abuse, not limited to taxidermy and actual animal death. There is also the on-page death of a child and on-page incest and hinted-at child molestation, and very stereotypical depictions of mental illness as well as a suicide attempt. Be warned before reading it.
The Book of Hidden Wonders is None More Dark in very many ways. Vantablack in its perambulations about murder, suicide, dementia, child molestation, animal abuse and isolation, it’s difficult to enjoy it for long stretches, and the hollow uplift of its ending will depend on how strongly you trust Romilly as a narrator. If your child loves Dickens or the Gashtlycrumb Tinies, they may love this book. Unfortunately, the grown-up in me couldn’t get into Crosby’s ink-dark rollercoaster ride due to the lack of invention surrounding the author’s gothic grusomeness. She also didn’t want to read a paragraphs long description of a dog’s penis. Such is life.
Romilly is one of those hard-to-grasp waiflike gothic novel narrators – you know the kind, who’s so unreliable a narrator that you have no idea if you should be rooting for her or not. Well. It’s impossible not to do so at first, but by the time she’s left alone and her mind begins to invent horrendous things, the author’s self-adoration of her own cleverness begins to swallow the story whole. And Stacy’s secret believes itself to be much deeper than it is.
The book suffers from a lack of sympathetic characters. Romilly’s parents are awful, even her beloved father; only her grandmother has any sort of sympathetic meat on her bones – and you can guess what happens to her. A social worker does pop up at around the last third of the book, but we don’t know her well enough to appreciate her presence.
So what keeps this one above a D? The powerful writing of Polly Crosby, which compels and repels at every turn. The ride is unpleasant but fascinating, and she doesn’t let up for a second as she describes the noble squalor that surrounds Our Heroine.
Only the most moodily gothic among us will enjoy The Book of Hidden Wonders. Perhaps some of us will enjoy this as a dark trifle, but its cavalcade of misery is hard to swallow.