This beautiful and original book hit me straight in the heart and I was reading the last few pages with a massive lump in my throat. Romilly Kemp lives in the run down Bräer House with her father Tobias, an artist who is both inventive and eccentric in equal measure. This situation reminded me of a classic favourite I Capture the Castle, but Romilly’s story is much more than a coming of age tale. Romilly and her father live alone and are struggling for money, when Tobias has an idea for a children’s book based on his daughter. Featuring his original illustrations, the books follow Romilly and her Siamese cat Monty through a series of adventures at the circus, in a windmill and at Christmas. She is preserved forever as a 9 year old in her patchwork dress and her red hair flying behind her. Romilly loves looking for the tiny little additions to his main illustrations – a tiny mouse holding a forget-me- not, two miniature hares boxing, and sometimes Romilly herself being chased by a animal. The public fall in love with the books and the idea grows that there is some sort of treasure hunt contained in the pages leading to trespassers at Bräer and some horrible encounters with reporters and photographers.
Romilly can see secrets of a different kind in the pages her father has drawn, but she’s used to secrets. She hasn’t seen her mum for so long she’s largely forgotten her and they have no other family. Where does her friend Stacey go when she is missing for weeks? Who is the beautiful, pink costumed circus lady she meets who knows her father? She notices differences in the way she’s drawn in the book and also a very faintly painted lady in the background often with her head in her hands. Her dad gives her a puzzle box he’s made, which starts to tick when it’s her birthday releasing a memento or object that’s important to her – Monty’s silver bell, a pink feather. When her dad’s memory starts to fail, Romilly wonders if all these clues are for her, or are they triggers for her dad’s memory? More importantly, I was starting to wonder who would look after Romilly and what had torn this close family apart?
is meant to be home schooled, but has no real curriculum or structure. There are times when heat and food are scarce, and set mealtimes never seem to happen unless someone is visiting. As Tobias declines, Romilly is having to cope alone with no family to help. I wanted to swoop in and look after her and Monty. There’s no doubt that she’s independent, resourceful and intelligent, but is that innate or something she’s had to develop having been left to fend for herself so often? There’s a deep understanding of the psychology of a child in this position underlying Romilly’s story. Even her name means ‘strength’ and she has so much, using it to defend her tiny family and her home.
Underlying all of this is an understanding of trauma and how grief can tear apart the strongest families. In one part of the book Tobias explains to his daughter that people grieve in different ways and sometimes that means doing it apart. I know grief well, and at different stages in my journey I’ve done things differently, avoided certain places and people. At first I struggled to talk to anyone who was as shattered by my husband’s death as I was. I couldn’t deal with anyone else’s needs, only my own. I was very angry with people who turned out for the funeral claiming a relationship with my husband, who I had never met in the seven years we’d been married, the last four of I’d been caring for him 24/7. Later I wanted to seek out people who grieved as strongly as I did because we could reminisce and understand each other’s profound sadness. When reading the book I found myself both very angry with Romilly’s mother because I felt she was selfish, but I also sympathised and understood her decision that she shouldn’t be a parent. There were parts of the novel where I felt nobody understood or fully cared how much their decisions impacted on this little girl. I was so profoundly sad for her and at that point where she realised she needed help, she allowed herself to be vulnerable which must have been so difficult for her.
This is a beautiful book: it’s invocation of childhood and play; the magical atmosphere of Bräer and it’s surroundings; the stunning artworks done by Tobias and the complex history he’s trying to convey. I loved how the author showed objects sparking memories, for Romilly, but also for Tobias who, befuddled by dementia, recognises his daughter through Monty’s silver bell. I hadn’t unravelled the mystery so I could sit back and enjoy it as it played out and when the truth was finally revealed everything made sense, even if I did think Tobias could have handled it so differently. I have a particular affinity with hares, so his drawing under the book’s dust jacket of the two hares was particularly moving. What I loved most was the way the author showed a difficult childhood still being magical and full of memories. I think we can probably all look back and remember times that feel golden to us, but might be very different from our parent’s perspective. Romilly’s freedom, her ability to invent and imagine, to follow her own interests when mixed in with the magical circus, the panther stalking the area round the village and buried treasure seem magical. How much of this would she be willing to trade for security, routine and someone to care for her? This book will stay with me for a long time and is a definite candidate for my ‘forever shelves’.
Meet The Author
Polly Crosby grew up on the Suffolk coast, and now lives with her husband and son in the heart of Norfolk.
Her debut novel, The Illustrated Child (The Book of Hidden Wonders in the US and Australia) is out now.
In 2018, Polly won Curtis Brown Creative’s Yesterday Scholarship, which enabled her to finish her novel. Later the same year, The Illustrated Child was awarded runner-up in the Bridport Prize’s Peggy Chapman Andrews Award for a First Novel. Polly received the Annabel Abbs Creative Writing Scholarship at the University of East Anglia, and is currently working on her second novel.