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Novel set in rural ENGLAND

15th July 2020

The Illustrated Child by Polly Crosby, novel set in rural England.

Novel set in rural ENGLAND

This is Polly Crosby’s debut novel and what a debut novel it is!  The narrative voice is that of nine-year-old Romilly Kemp, the child of the title, and we follow as she tries to make sense of the sometimes magical, sometimes dangerous but always puzzling world around her.

It is the late 1980s and Romilly lives with her father in a huge, ramshackle moat-surrounded house in the middle of rural England.  There is no sign of Romilly’s mother and seemingly no other relatives.  Romilly doesn’t go to school as her father prefers to home-school her.  This, however, amounts to virtually nothing and Romilly is free to roam the countryside endlessly.  She is always alone, apart from her much-loved cat, Monty, until she encounters a village wild-child, Stacey, who is also, and just as unsuccessfully, being home-schooled.  The pair become friends but Stacey is an unreliable friend, coming and going as she pleases and often disappearing off to her mysterious village life, just when Romilly could most do with her presence.

There is very little money to make vital repairs to the crumbling house or even to feed them, until Romilly’s dad writes a children’s book, starring Romilly and Monty and it becomes a best seller.  Readers are convinced that the intriguing pictures in the book (and its sequels) hide secrets and clues to hidden treasure and Romilly finds herself famous and persecuted by fans and tourists.  The books’ fame also brings her mother back into her life briefly, with catastrophic results.  As time passes, Romilly’s father gradually succumbs to Alzheimer’s, taking the only person she has ever had to rely on away from her and Romilly becomes more and more convinced, despite the hordes of spade-toting tourists, that the secret treasure of the books is not a material one, but something for her alone to discover.

This is a beautifully written novel, albeit at times disturbing and fairly melancholy, filled with the most powerful imagery and descriptions.  The characterisation is masterful; these are fully realised, three dimensional characters, viewed through a nine-year-old’s eyes, so they are at times wonderful warm and loving and, at others, unpredictable and frightening.  It’s also quite simply just a great read, involving the reader in solving the puzzle of the pictures alongside Romilly and it keeps the reader guessing right to the end.

The Illustrated Child’s greatest strength, however, lies in evocation of childhood experience.  The novel is very clearly set in the late 1980s – many topical events are mentioned – and the sense of the kind of unsupervised childhood that English children of the 80’s were probably the last to experience, is very vividly drawn.  But it also, and very powerfully, gives the reader a real insight into the mind of a young child who is struggling to make sense of the adults around her, adults who neglect and fail to protect her but still undoubtedly love her.

A corker!. This author is going to go on to do great things!

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

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