CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 35. . . .May 11, 2018
The Strange and Deadly Portraits of Bryony Gray.
Toronto, ON: Tundra, 2018.
322 pp., hardcover & epub, $21.00 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-101-91928-6 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-101-91929-3 (epub).
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Lisa Doucet.
The painted woman was larger than she’d been just moments ago. Closer to the frame. Bryony stared, alarm slowly seeping into the cracks between her bones and muscles, paralyzing her completely. Somehow she found her voice. “You stop that,” she said, trying to sound as stern as possible. “You’re not even finished yet…”
The lady in the portrait twitched again, much more visibly this time, jerky movements that brought her closer and closer to the frame.
Bryony jumped back, feet slipping on a smear of white paint. She had time for one sharp squeak of dismay and then she was falling, arms pinwheeling, hands grasping for something, anything. She went down hard.
Something cracked when she hit the floor, and there was a sharp pain in her elbow, but there was no time to check for broken appendages. The horribly disfigured Lady Abney was leering at her from the canvas, and as Bryony looked on in terror, the woman – monster, really – lifted her one good arm and snaked it forward. The canvas bulged in the middle.
Bryony squeaked and scuttled backward, crablike on her elbows, dragging herself through glass shards and paint. Pain blazed in the palm of her left hand, but she ignored it, fixated on the scene unfolding before her. There was a sharp rending sound as the canvas tore, and then a spiderlike hand crawled out, followed by a long, white arm. The canvas ripped open wider and wider as the creature came through.
Bryony was completely frozen.
A shoulder pushed its way out – awkwardly, slowly – and then the canvas tore wider still, revealing hollow black eyes, still weeping paint that ran in tracks down a pale, powdered face. It was impossible that they should focus on anything; there were no pupils, no irises. But still, they seemed to fix on Bryony as the monstrous woman tore herself bit by bit from the canvas. The easel finally gave way, collapsing under the weight, tipping forward and crashing to the floor with a sound so thunderous that the voices from downstairs went silent.
Locked away in a dim and depressing attic from the time she was seven-years-old, young Bryony Gray yearns to be free. But her cruel aunt and uncle have their own plans for her. As soon as Bryony had begun to show signs of giftedness as a painter, they locked her in the attic and have forced her to paint portraits for the wealthy men and women of London ever since. But lately rumours have been circulating about her and the fact that the subjects of her most recent paintings have all disappeared under mysterious circumstances. While Bryony knows nothing about these strange disappearances, she, too, has been noticing odd happenings. Then the subject of one of her paintings forces itself out of the canvas right before her eyes and goes off to terrorize the citizens of London, and Bryony knows that she must figure out what is going on and find a way to put a stop to it.
Finding herself free at last, Bryony slowly starts to put the pieces of this terrible puzzle together. But not without some help. Befriended by the siblings who live next door, she embarks on a quest to find her anonymous patron, the man who had been supplying her with paint and supplies for all these years. Bryony had long cherished the hope that her patron was, in fact, her father even though her aunt and uncle claimed that her father was dead. As she and Mira and Thompson find themselves fleeing from evil paintings-come-to-life and evading the vengeful mobs of Londoners who blame her for these horrifying events, she begins to unravel the mysteries of her own family, including the curse that her father unwittingly passed on to her. But Bryony learns more about her family than she could ever have imagined as she endeavours to find the way to break the curse once and for all.
Set in Victorian London, this middle grade follow-up/companion novel to The Picture of Dorian Gray has a delightfully sinister air that permeates the entire story as it builds to its dramatic climax. The concept of the paintings’ subjects bursting out of the canvases as ghoulish, soul-seeking creatures gives the story a nightmarish quality that will keep readers briskly turning pages. The author’s evocative and richly-imagined descriptions bring the horrific scenes vividly to life. But the plot of The Strange and Deadly Portraits of Bryony Gray is also skillfully woven and perfectly paced as Bryony and her new friends painstakingly unravel the details of the family curse. The characters provide another satisfying element of the story, with villains that are no less colourful than the story’s stout-hearted protagonists, and secondary characters that are equally noteworthy. Bryony, in particular, is an empathetic heroine whose vulnerability and naivete are balanced by her determination to do what is right and good despite her fears that she might be destined to be just like her father. Her gradual realization that “family” can refer to more than just the people who are biologically related to you brings a heartwarming aspect to the tale, as does the friendship that develops between her and Mira. The author hints at something more between the two girls, but it never becomes a main focus nor a distraction, simply a charming possibility. An action-packed adventure that is lightly laced with horror, there is a little something for everyone in this middle grade debut.
Lisa is Co-Manager of Woozles Children’s Bookstore in Halifax, NS.
© CM Association
University of Manitoba
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