A hugely atmospheric and creepy story that it's difficult to talk about without giving away the reveal. Thought the reveal happens quite early on, it's a chilling moment of realisation that the reader has to experience for themselves. So I'll do my best to give a flavour without giving too much away.
Sickly and over-coddled child Triss wakes up after having an accident on holiday. She has fallen in a lake, but can't remember anything about the accident at all. As soon as she is awake, she knows that something is wrong, but not wanting to worry her family, she focuses desperately on getting better. She is insatiably, impossibly hungry and keeps waking up with leaves in her hair and crumbs of mud on her feet. Her troublesome younger sister, Pen is terrified of her and insists, loudly and constantly that Triss is pretending to be ill. To no avail- she is ignored and rebuked by her family, dismissed as attention-seeking and spiteful. Most worrying of all, Triss' tears seem to be cobwebs and the leaves and soil seem to be coming from her.
I loved the relationship between (not) Triss and Pen. To begin with, she can barely look at her 'older sister', so strong is the hatred and fear- hatred incase this person is her sister, fear in case it is not. As circumstances force them together, they get to know each other, they begin to trust until they become inseparable. Pen can't reconcile the kindness and bravery of this Triss with the pre-accident Triss, a sister that she remembers being bitter, filled with malice and spite. The reader really doesn't get to know pre-accident Triss very well at all, but they become very fond of the new Triss, the girl who came out of the lake and the way she is now. She's brave and noble and after a few blips and wobbles, she would do anything to protect her family, anything to shield them from pain or grief, whatever the personal cost.
It's a dark and chilling fairytale, full of horrible villains and dastardly plans. There's an ever-present sense of foreboding and an understanding that anything could happen. The author creates this briefly glimpsed but effective in-between world, filled with ghostly, shape-shifting trickster spirits, nestled invisibly in the impossible dimensions of modern architecture. It contrasts starkly with the crumbling social fabric of the post World War I era, the shifting of the Old Ways into the modern era. I loved the misty, depressed real world with the shadow of the fantastic lingering over it. Very Neil Gaiman indeed.
Hardinge has a slight tendency to over-write in this book, there's the occasional metaphor that slips its hold and becomes a bit uncontrollable, but it sort of works with the creepy, fantastical nightmare elements. The melodrama suits Triss during her most traumatic or dramatic moments. Overall I was impressed with the author's sense for causing subtle discomfort through everyday things; dolls, snow, food. The everyday becomes tainted with weird, and that's very effective all the way through.
Ultimately I suppose it's a story about identity and families. The Triss that this narrative follows struggles to come to terms with her identity, or rather her lack of identity. Triss' parents struggle to accept that their daughter is growing up and becoming capable of choosing for herself. In many ways its a coming of age story about a character that only realises what kind of a person they are when they are tempted, tested to the limits and when they seem to have nothing left to lose. Well worth a read, a very unique novel whose Carnegie chances I quite fancy.