Thornhill by Pam Smy is a stunning book - one of those books I dearly wish my 11-year-old-self had been able to read. A ghost story that will keep you on the edge of your seat, Thornhill is a book that will linger in your memory long after you finish reading it. Thornhill, which is a gorgeously designed book - from the book case with the silhouette of Thornhill raised, to the beautifully illustrated endpapers and the matte black pages that separate the dual plots, is also a heavily illustrated book with one story line playing out in illustrations only, much like Brian Selznick's masterful trilogy - The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck and The Marvels.
Thornhill begins with a one page diary entry from 1982 then moves quickly into the illustrated story of Ella, which is set in 2017. Careful "reading" of Ella's illustrated story reveals clues about her lonely life - an absent mother, a workaholic father and lots of time alone in a new town. Outside Ella's window is Thornhill, a boarded up, graffitied mansion that, newspapers in Ella's room reveal was once an orphanage for girls that was sold for development in 1982. However, the tragic death of one of the last residents and the inquiry that followed stalled the plans for decades.
In 1982, selectively mute Mary Baines spends increasingly more time locked in her room, making puppets and avoiding her tormentor. Throughout the pages of her diary, Mary writes of an unnamed girl who has beautiful eyes and flowing blonde hair, beloved by all the other girls in the home and the staff, but who is also a merciless bully. At night, this girl stands outside Mary's door, thumping, thumping, or sometimes, even worse, just standing still for hours. During the day, she seems to be goading the other girls into making Mary's life miserable by stealing her homework, gluing the pages of her textbooks together and jostling her elbow as she carries her tray of food to her table. Finding it almost impossible to talk, Mary can't ask for help and fears no one will believe her.
As Ella begins exploring the ruins of Thornhill, finding the remains of some of Mary's puppets that she works to restore, Mary's dark story gets darker. One of the most masterful and delicious things about Thornhill is the way that Smy's storytelling kept me returning to Mary's (unreliably narrated) story, over and over, weeks after I finished reading, trying to determine if her tormentor was real or a ghost? The ambiguity is far from frustrating, but exciting, and the references to Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden with the sour-faced, unlikable Mary Lennox add depth to the story and keep the questions swirling.
Finally, I need to comment on the fact that several other reviewers have called Mary's puppets creepy dolls and I take issue with that. I found the fact that Mary created them with love and care and considered them her friends - in fact, she even begins making a family of puppets like the family she hopes to be adopted into - poignant. I was a kid just Mary who made dolls. I even made an orphanage out of a cardboard box and filled with with dolls I made. Being creative was a fantastic feeling and, as a kind of lonely kid who moved a lot, the dolls were my friends. While I definitely appreciate the place dolls have in the genre of ghost and horror stories, it must be noted that in Thornhill, dolls and puppets are so much more.
**Note of super coolness: As well as work as an illustrator, Pam Smy is a Senior Lecturer in Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University, which she also graduated from with a BA in Illustration and an MA in Children's Illustration! And, in her acknowledgements, she also thanks Philip Pullman for helping her with her application for a sabbatical from her post as lecturer.