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Books Read in 2017: ‘Brightwood’ by Tania Unsworth (Middle Grade Suspense, 4 stars)

Monday, February 13, 2017

by Tania Unsworth
Genre: Middle Grade Suspense
My rating: 4 stars

Book Summary:
In this spine-tingling tale, a girl fights to save her home and her life from a mysterious stranger.

Daisy Fitzjohn knows there are two worlds: the outside world and the world of her home, a secluded mansion called Brightwood Hall. But only Brightwood is real for Daisy—she’s never once set foot outside its grounds. Daisy and her mother have everything they need within Brightwood’s magnificent, half-ruined walls, including Daisy’s best friends: a talking rat named Tar and the ghost of a long-ago explorer who calls herself Frank.

When Daisy’s mother leaves one morning, a peculiar visitor, James Gritting, arrives on the estate, claiming to be a distant cousin. But as the days tick by and Daisy’s mother doesn’t return, Gritting becomes more and more menacing. He wants Brightwood for himself, and he will do anything to get it.

Tania Unsworth takes readers on a twisting, heart-pounding journey through dark corridors and wild woods to a place where the line between imagination and madness is sometimes hard to find.

My GR Status Update(s):
02/06. . .Currently Reading
02/06. . .10.0%

02/11 . . . 51.0% If no one knows that you exist, then how do you know for sure that you really do exist? This story reminds me a lot of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”—with all the fascination and creepiness that not knowing if a narrator is unreliable or not can bring.

02/12 . . . Finished Reading

My Review:
What an interesting book! When I first added this to my Goodreads list, based on the summary above, I marked it as Paranormal fiction. However, the use of the term “ghost” is misleading. I don’t want to give anything away, but if you’ve read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” you might have some clue as to why it isn’t truly a paranormal story.

Even though my timeline shows that it took me six days to read this book, it’s really a pretty quick read (about 3–4 hours, depending on how fast you read)—as a novel for middle-grade/tween readers, it’s not overly long. However, the length of the book and the age of the heroine, Daisy, are really the only things that mark this as a story for “younger” readers. Unsworth’s writing sparkles, and she doesn’t “dumb down” the language, style, or complexity of her prose in order to cater to perceptions about what young readers might and might not be able to understand. In fact, were I a middle-school English teacher, this would be a great book for the students to read with assignments to dissect the sentence and story structure, along with a nice vocabulary list to learn!

For example, after Daisy’s mother disappears and James Gritting arrives, he is surprised to find Daisy on the property and tells her that no one knows she exists. Later, speaking to the topiary horse (named True), Daisy poses a deeply philosophical question and receives an equally deep answer in return:

“If nobody knows you exist, how do you know you exist? . . . How do you know if you’re real?”

“You feel the wind,” he suggested. “You see the clouds passing overhead. You hear the hum of the earth turning.”

“But how can you be sure?” Daisy asked. “How can you be sure you’re not imagining it. Or somebody else is. What if someone is just imagining me? Like a character in a book. Do characters in books know they’re only made up?” . . .

“Be still. Listen. Deep inside you, deeper than your mind and deeper than your heart, something lies hidden. Nothing can touch it, not the gardener’s shears, not rain or storm, not even the boxwood blight. Can you feel it?”

Daisy felt the slow surge of her breath and the beating of hear heart. . . . She opened her eyes and stared up at the calm, endless sky until something unfurled within her that was just as calm and just as endless.

“That’s your Shape,” True told her. “That’s how you know you exist. And you have to keep your Shape, Daisy. No matter what happens.”

“I will,” she said. “I promise I will.”

(Kindle loc. 872–882)

In the long run, it’s this idea of “keeping your Shape” that helps Daisy through some of the most harrowing parts of the book. And she’s helped out along the way by Tar, the rat; Frank, a black-and-white apparition of a young woman who supposedly assisted Daisy’s great-great-grandfather on his safaris/adventures; True, the topiary horse; the Hunter, a statue in the garden; and other “friends” around the estate. (Don’t worry, it all makes sense in the book.)

Circling back to “The Yellow Wallpaper”—if you haven’t guessed it from the fact that Daisy has never set foot outside the boundaries of the walls surrounding Brightwood, there is/are (a) character(s) with mental instability in this story. And, like that classic short story, with the narrow scope of a limited Point of View of just one character (in this case in third person, rather than first), it’s hard to be sure if the narrator is 100% reliable all the time—if what’s being reported as happening is really happening. Does the topiary horse really speak? Is Frank real? Is James Gritting truly not so bad, or is he masking some kind of maliciousness? Daisy lets the reader know that “The Crazy” runs strong in the Fitzjohn family. And while, for the eleven years of her life until now, Daisy has taken for granted that the way she and her mother live is normal (in an enormous manor house which Daisy can get around only by climbing over, under, and around furniture, stacks of books, and unopened delivery boxes; knowing they have a stockpile of food that could last them for years; and living life by her mother’s very strict schedule), it isn’t long after Gritting arrives that Daisy is forced to reconcile what she’s learned (home-schooled, of course) about the rest of the world and the life she’s lived up to this point.

It’s her friends (the rat, the topiary horse, the ghost, the statue…) which help her see things that she’s known all along but just didn’t want to admit to. And all the while, she’s in the middle of trying to figure out who James Gritting is, why he’s there, and what he wants—and decide whether or not she should risk venturing into the outside world to get help.

All in all, a wonderful story. I look forward to reading more from this author.

My rating matrix:
5 STARS = one of the best I’ve ever read
4 STARS = a great read, highly recommended
3 STARS = it was okay
2 STARS = I didn’t enjoy it all that much, not recommended
1 STAR = DNF (did not finish)

View all my reviews on Goodreads

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