CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 26. . . .March 11, 2016
Worlds of Ink and Shadow.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2016.
342 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
Grades 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.
Review by Wendy Phillips.
“Who are you?” Charlotte breathed. She felt sure that this new person could see her, could see into her. “What are you?”
The woman only smiled wider, showing a blackened bottom tooth. There was something terribly unnerving about her expression, something wrong and broken in her eyes, and yet there was something familiar about her, too.
She began to laugh—a low, slow “ha...ha...ha”—and Charlotte felt a shudder go through her body. She knew that sound, had heard in tone long ago. She put her hands over her ears.
The strange woman lifted her fist and began to knock at the mirror glass, so hard it set the dressing table vibrating. Beyond her, the dainty frills and furnishings were gone, replaced with unpainted walls and a single candle guttering on a plain table.
“Go away!”Charlotte said. She stood, knocking over her chair, and shrank back into a corner of her room. She was afraid of this creature, afraid that there was only a thin sheet of glass between them.
The woman’s laugh was loud now. It seemed to echo through the parsonage—a mirthless and tragic cackling. She knocked harder and harder upon the mirror. Charlotte’s dressing table rocked back and forth. Then—crack!—the mirror broke outward, scattering shards of glass onto the bare floor all the way to Charlotte’s feet.
Brought up in an isolated parsonage on a bleak Yorkshire moor, the Bronte children, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne, escape loneliness by creating imaginary worlds that eventually threaten their very lives. In Worlds of Ink and Shadow, Lena Coakley imagines the intense relationships between the siblings and creates a suspenseful story of rivalry and sacrifice, and the power and price of imagination.
Based on the Brontes’ own juvenilia, the novel evokes the world of the children’s imagination. The richly ornate Verdopolis, peopled by such colourful characters as the dangerous, brooding Rogue, the beautiful Mary Henrietta and the dashing Duke of Zamora, is everything their home is not – romantic, gorgeous, passionate and irresistible. The two eldest, Charlotte and Branwell, intertwine their stories, creating narrative twists and competing dramatic plot shifts. Charlotte’s attempts to shape a romantic happy ending are often foiled by Branwell’s determination to draw out Rogue’s dastardly inclinations. Their engagement in their imaginary world is so complete that they physically disappear, leaving only a pen, spooling out its story as it writes unguided by a human hand. Meanwhile, Branwell and Charlotte vanish into Verdopolis, taking on roles that allow them to manipulate their imaginary world simply by wishing it so.
The two younger girls, Emily and Anne, have been banned from these journeys to Verdopolis. Though Emily has created her own romantic and melancholy world in Gondal, neither girl is able to “cross over” and step fully into the imagined reality on their own. The volatile and passionate Emily especially burns with resentment. She has fallen in love with the dangerous Rogue and longs for passion and drama.
As Charlotte and Branwell approach adulthood, the weight of the world falls upon their shoulders. When her father discovers her shocking (for the times) diversion, Charlotte determines to leave Verdopolis behind, but it is easier said than done. Their characters refuse to let them go. Returning for one last farewell to her beloved world, and bringing Emily and Anne with her, Charlotte finds the story spinning out of control, caught up in its own momentum. Branwell begins to descend into madness, and the sisters feel their real lives slipping away as the stories begin to write themselves. Soon the Duke of Zamora, unable to be satisfied with even the most beautiful of women, begins to question his own feelings. Rogue, the most fully imagined of the Verdopolis characters, becomes dangerously self-aware, questioning his origins and his creators and vowing revenge. The imagined world becomes dangerously real when the spirits of the characters begin to cross into the reality of the Brontes, appearing first as ghostly visions, then as savage spirits that threaten the siblings’ very lives.
Richly researched, Worlds of Ink and Shadow brings to life one of history’s most celebrated literary families. For those familiar with Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, and with Branwell Bronte’s portraits of his sisters, the siblings’ personalities and intense desires reflect their future artistic and literary accomplishments. It is amusing to find parallels to Heathcliffe and Mr. Rochester in their childish imaginings, to recognize parallel events, and to view images of portraits painted by Bronwell in the narrative. However, readers need not be familiar with literary classics to appreciate the story. What child has not longed to escape a dull everyday life through imagining thrilling and suspenseful stories? The grand and dashing world of Verdopolis needs no allusive connection to be relevant and exciting. The novel slides from realism to fantasy and back with the ease of a child’s breathed, “Let’s pretend.”
Told in alternating points of view among the siblings, the writing reflects the deeply personal yet universal nether-world between the real and the imaginary and hints at the cost of losing oneself in the latter. Author Lena Coakley skilfully blurs the line between the two in a way that is utterly believable, and the dangers the young characters face are tangible. At first, readers are comfortably certain that their disappearance into imagination is metaphorical, but, as the children’s made-up world bleeds dangerously into the real one, the story moves from comfortable metaphor into absorbing and suspenseful fantasy. Evocative and compelling, the well-researched examples from the Brontes’ youthful early writings are woven seamlessly into the author’s fictional recreation of their isolated lives.
The story is compelling and evocatively written. Worlds of Ink and Shadow will appeal not only to readers who are already fans of the Brontes’ historical or gothic fiction, but also to those who love a gripping fantasy.
Wendy Phillips is a teacher-librarian in Richmond, BC, and the author of the Governor General's Literary Award winning young adult novel, Fishtailing.
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