Blog 15

Thornhill by Pam Smy

“I have spent days and days in bed. I can’t face school. I don’t want to see anyone. I can’t even read.”

I have never read a book like this. I was so stunned at the end that I had to take a break from writing a blog about it, to absorb the message and the story. This is not a book for the faint hearted.

There are two narratives in this wonderful novel about two teenage girls who live 30 or so years apart. Mary’s story is told through her diary from 1982 and it is a hard hitting read. She is persistently bullied by the girls she lives with at Thornhill and is repeatedly ignored and left to struggle on her own. And I don’t think we should hide behind the fact that places like Thornhill, where young girls who are struggling to be fostered are living. They existed in the 1980s and I am not convinced they don’t exist today.  I was so drawn into Mary’s existence that at every turn, when an adult turns up in Mary’s life, I wanted them to rescue her. It astonished me that she could be so overlooked for being quiet or mute. Thornhill itself echoes her despondent existence; she is isolated at the top of the house. When the summer’s stifling heat takes over her room and she is desperate to breathe, you feel the house is as much a trap as a home. But Mary doesn’t want to leave. It’s the only home she’s known. Her relationship with the bully made me weep, as time and time again she falls for the nasty, vicious tricks that are played on her.

The other story is Ella’s, set in 2017. It’s beautifully illustrated and it’s a long time since I have had to read pictures to understand a narrative. They’re black and white and reflect Ella’s lonely and rather dark life. She can see Thornhill from her bedroom window and it’s derelict and overgrown. However, she climbs through a gap in the fence drawn to the place by a figure she sees in the garden. Sadly just like Mary, she is alone as her father is never there and her mother is absent. However, she builds a relationship with Mary which is beautifully conceived and shown through the delicate images. I was entranced and even though we don’t hear Ella speak, you can feel her sadness and loneliness.

I don’t want to say much else, as this is a text that everyone should read. It demonstrates the power a bully can have over a young person. How they control the person they are bullying and those around them. It reveals the incredibly difficult circumstances some children are forced to live in, through no fault of their own. And, sadly, it also shows how easy it is for us, as adults, to firstly, ignore the problem but secondly, to just not listen and ask the right questions. I know there are kids out there that I worked with, where often I could not get to the bottom of the issue they were facing, until I found the right question. Sometimes that might have been as simple as asking, “Are you okay?”.

I am so impressed by a book that uses illustration, as powerfully as it uses the written word. I can see why this is on the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize Shortlist for 2018 and I am still feeling incredibly moved. Go and read it, would be my advice.

Who should read this book?

I think this is a fantastic book to discuss with teenagers. There is so much here that many of them face. Definitely recommended for 13+ or Year 9 and up. It confronts some difficult issues. Bullying is such a challenging issue to resolve. It takes a great deal of bravery for a young person to speak up. In terms of teaching, I think you could read some of the diary entries in this and talk about emotion and how it’s conveyed so quickly. It has great mastery of the diary form and a bit of textual analysis would open plenty of opportunities for discussion. In terms of form, what a wonderful text to use with A-level English Language students to discuss how texts are created and how they create meaning. For English Literature students, I would sit this alongside other gothic texts and compare them … might be a good NEA opportunity here.

Still thinking about the messages and meaning … truly powerful.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2EZz4dR