White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

We returned from one of our regular trips to the library recently - me with a bagful of poetry – and my daughter with White Crow, a young adult novel with a dark, portentous cover…

As soon as we were through the front door, my daughter disappeared to her room, clutching the book like a prize – and by tea time, she had already read half way through it. By the end of the day, she had finished it, and was wearing that enigmatic expression of a reader just emerged from a journey somewhere inward, challenging and rewarding…

She mentioned an elfin-like girl named Ferelith – and mysteries that had gripped so much, she had been unable to put the book down… But she didn’t want to spoil it for me if I decided to read it too… (I’ve been careful not to include any potential spoilers in the following review, for the same reason…)

In the library, I’d only taken in a general impression of the book’s cover and title. Now, looking at it again, I fully registered who the author was – and recognised Marcus Sedgwick’s name as one that often crops up on children’s book recommendations and shortlists for book awards, including the Carnegie Medal. I checked my bookshelves – and yes, I was right, I have one of his other novels, The Dark Horse, which I bought a while back and still haven’t got round to reading.

Intrigued, I borrowed White Crow from my daughter a few days later – and, like her, found it was one of those gobble-up books that won’t let you go. I’m not quite sure who or what did the devouring – whether I gobbled up the book, or whether it gobbled me. All I know is that I was edgily compelled to turn just one more page, to read just one more chapter – unable to let it go. The book has an uneasy hold on you – circling you first with intrigue, and then moving in ever closer, to enmesh you in a growing sense of troubling darkness.

And as the story progresses, we are moving into very dark and disturbing stuff indeed. At the climax of the novel, Sedgwick heightens the tension to such a degree, my fear for the protagonist became oppressive, almost physical. Mistrust, the sinister and the malign are pitched to an all pervasive sense of dread; an almost unbearable suspense.

Reading this book, I felt increasingly on shifting ground – metaphorically and, in terms of the characters’ location, quite literally. The story is set in the village of Winterfold, based on Dunwich in Suffolk:

Once upon a time there was a whole town here, not just a handful of houses. A town with twelve churches and thousands of people, dozens of streets, and a busy harbour.

And then the sea ate it.

Storm by storm, year by year, the cliffs collapsed into the advancing sea, taking the town with it, house by house and street by street…

We see a landscape where the last remaining church in the village is half eaten away by cliff erosion, its eastern end gaping open to sea, moon and stars; where the graves and bones of the long dead are poised to fall into the sea – and where subterranean secrets of the past are about to be exposed in all their horror.

This is a novel of big themes and big questions. It’s about the inevitability of death and loss – and about human questioning beyond the boundaries of that inevitability. Opposites constantly fray each other’s edges – life and death, sea and land, love and hate, good and evil, trust and mistrust, choice and fate, hope and despair, heaven and hell – angels and devils.

Sixteen year old Rebecca arrives in Winterfold with her father, their relationship also fraying at the edges of love, mistrust and resentment. Her father is a police officer, under suspicion for some kind of dereliction of duty that may have led to the death of a young girl. In Winterfold, they are looking for a retreat from the hell of their situation in London.

Rebecca meets Ferelith, a local girl with an ethereal, other-worldly quality, who is:

‘…strange-looking; there’s something elfin about her. Everything ends in points; her nose, her eyes, her chin, her lips, her fingers, the spikes of her long tresses of black hair…… her teeth, not quite a vampire’s, but not far short.’

Ferelith is a highly intelligent young woman who, having gained her ‘A’ levels at the age of fourteen has taken herself out of school, bored with it limitations. What interest her are big questions. Is there a God? If there is a guiding force in the universe, is it benign? Is the universe just a big cosmic accident? Is there a purpose to life? What are the implications of all the possibilities? She becomes obsessed with the question of life after death, wrapping up her thoughts in stories that surround the old, ruined manor in Winterfold; stories of a man called Dr Barrieux who arrived in Winterfold in the eighteenth century, fresh from the French Revolution, amid rumours that he was conducting sinister experiments into the possibilities of life after death.

An exploration of the philosophy of William James (philosopher and psychologist brother of the novelist Henry James) also runs through the fabric of the novel; Ferelith is very interested in choice and how it determines the future – and bound up in her obsession with questions about the afterlife, is William James’s analogy of the white crow. As Ferelith explains it in the novel:

‘You might say that although you have not seen every crow in the whole world, every crow you have ever seen is black. Therefore the chances are very great that all crows are black. In fact, you have decided that all crows are black. Now of course, if someone could show you a white crow, everything would be overturned in a moment.

But all crows are black.

And in the same way, you conclude that no one lives after death. There is no ‘other side’. There is no white crow.

But, supposing I said I had seen a white crow? Just one. A single white crow.

What then?’

There is a leaden weight of sadness and suffering behind both girls’ histories, and a longing to love underlies their troubled paths. In their developing friendship, there is a moving, tentative reaching out through the ravages of damage, whilst manipulation and detachment , threat, cruelty, power-play and vulnerability become a shifting counter current in that connection between them.

The summer in which the story takes place is unrelentingly hot, dry and parched – but, like everything in the book, the unease between states is held on a knife edge and Winterfold, living up to its name, retains ‘a cold embrace, and like the snows of winter, it does not let you go easily.’

The language is tight, edgy; it makes you jittery and unsure. There are three narrators – an omnipotent narrator, telling the story in third person present tense, an eighteenth century priest telling his story in diary form – and Ferelith, narrating in first person past tense. Like the unstable landscape, the unsettling dance between the narratives adds to the shifting feel of the book – and the reasons for the differing tenses become startlingly exposed by the end of the novel. The very structure of the book fulfils the interplay of its explorations.

All the time, as I raced through the book, I was aware that Marcus Sedgwick was layering the narrative with meaning and significance, with clues and pointers; food for endlessly questioning thought. For instance, each of the chapters narrated by Ferelith is headed by a song title, which I’m sure on further investigation, will throw up some deeper significance. So far, in hindsight, I’ve realised how one is a major clue.

It is a book that deserves a second – slower and closer – reading. Its structure is layered with fraught possibilities, working on many levels simultaneously. The symbolic and apparent, the psychological and physical, the natural and supernatural draw the reader to their tipping points, challenging interpretation. Taking us on subterranean journeys of the human mind, Sedgwick offers up an unsettling exploration of the unanswerable, and leaves our perceptions teetering on that ever present knife edge of doubt and insight.

This is territory suitable for older children and adults. Dark, disturbing and leading into gruesome and horrifying recesses of humanity, it is a troubling read, but one that nags at the edges of the mind and sets a deep questioning to eat away at assumptions and veiled possibilities, exposing them to the light of scrutiny, just as the sea in the book relentlessly uncovers what’s hidden, and the storms force us to look and see.

9 thoughts on “White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

  1. I read this a few months ago – great setting and story but I didn’t like the main characters much for some reason and I did find it disturbing too. Interesting to read another opinion!
    Just noticed you’ve added me to your nature trail! Thank you for that.

    • You’re welcome, Diana – I think my blogroll is in danger of getting very long – I’m discovering so many wonderful blogs out there! That’s interesting that you read ‘White Crow’ just recently. When I read it after my daughter, I was surprised at the really chilling stuff, as she’s always steered well clear of the gruesome before – though I think the horror elements took her by surprise too! She found them shocking, but seemed to deal with them as belonging very much to the realms of the unreal. I think, as an adult, I was able to pick up more fully on some of the underlying implications. I’m still trying to work out how much Ferelith represents a darker side of the psyche/ Rebecca’s despair and depression. The book’s many levels make it work so well as both a gripping thriller and a symbolic exploration of dark journeys of the mind, whilst keeping so many possibilities of reality/ unreality open…

  2. This is intriguing – must be one for the list – you make it sound fascinating… with all the perfect ingredients for a haunting, gothic read by the fire. I’m thinking it might be a little Philip Pullman-ish in scope? It sounds like it avoids a few of the 21st century cliches too.

    • It’s different to Philip Pullman – Marcus Sedgwick kind of approaches things from a different angle and style – it’s an edgy, tightly enmeshed world (claustrophobic, threatening) presented in the book, with a spare, fast moving, jittery feel to it… but the scope of ideas is really big and far reaching, as in Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’… I admire how much Sedgwick packs into so few pages, and how he implies so many directions of thought, in so few words very cleverly juxtaposed. As I typed that, the porter at the gates of Macbeth’s castle suddenly came into my mind – all that sinister sense of equivocation and not knowing what is and what seems… there’s that kind of sense in the book.

      I get slightly nervous when recommending books, as it’s all so personal how different people respond to what they read. ‘White Crow’ can be previewed on Amazon, which might give you an idea if it ticks your boxes. It’s well worth checking out Marcus Sedgwick’s blog too. He certainly does seem to be avoiding 21st century cliches – his latest post talks about how he writes for, and to be true to, himself – and not to target any particular kind of market or reader…

  3. Hello… After reading your wonderful post I sought this out. I have to say first that I found your review far more effectively written than the book, I think your words imbue it with a subtlety and sophistication that it doesn’t quite achieve… but I did absorb it in a day so I was driven along with it. I hope my impressions of White Crow don’t sound pompous, I’m uncomfortable being negative, but I was quite moved to write them down unfortunately. Mostly because I could see the vision of an art in there which you had drawn out!

    I think my problems with it overshadowed the interesting ideas – mostly I had a sense of some well-phrased observations/insights lightly peppering quite a mundane text exploring big ideas. I think the initial clinical atmosphere reminded me of a TV crime drama, in structure, but in such a way that it made me think of something that I’ve often wondered – how much real-life experience authors use and how much experience of film or TV. At worst, I found something very American TV show in there, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or similar. I found the characters lightly drawn and undeveloped, more like vehicles for plot than personalities.

    I was also uncomfortable with his depiction of the girls – I found it quite clichéd emotionally, with some attempts to sound ‘teen-speak’ at times that came across as clumsy, like a British actress struggling with an American accent. It was also quite disturbing – the ‘psycho-lesbian’ undertone was dreadful, and rather than a useful exploration of the issues of mental illness I think it could prove downright unsettling and damaging to the ‘emo-goth’ pigeon-hole I think he’s hoping to target.

    The sections with the priest was pure Hammer Horror for me – I could nearly feel the polyester eighteenth-century outfit…

    Having said all that, I did pick up on the My Cousin Rachel sense of is she or isn’t she good/bad, and the mirroring of Rebecca/Ferelith is effective (maybe it was the Rebecca name that made me think of My Cousin Rachel, and hold on, now I’m thinking of Mrs Danvers intimidating Mrs de Winter at the window ledge, or Rebecca/Mrs de Winter…). But I did enjoy your recommendation, I’m often fascinated by children’s literature and the opportunity to see how and why things work from a personal subjective viewpoint is really valuable. It made me appreciate what a master Penelope Farmer is (simply mentioned as I have read two or three of her books lately). It also reminds me that having a few decades of exposure to endless narratives gives us a duller experience than the one an intelligent and imaginative young reader would have of this book!

    I’m really looking forward to your post on Rumer Godden by the way…

    • Thanks for this – your impressions are all really interesting, and don’t sound pompous at all! I recognise in some of them reactions I had to aspects of the book, so I can see where they arise from, and there is some overlap there – but we seem to diverge on where we follow through from those points. For me, a feeling of something pushing through the narrative, and threading those aspects on a counter-balance, kept the book in a kind of self-revealing tip and sway of perspectives and interpretation…. There was an impression of echoing spaces around what was presented, that filled me with a sense of the very human and sad amidst the disturbing. Forgiving grey areas between the polar opposites seemed like possibilities which the characters, to their own detriment, too often missed and overlooked… A sad indictment of how human beliefs, fears and expectations can tip into areas of oppression, often self-inflicted.

      That’s part of what I picked up from it anyway! I’m just sorry that my interpretation set up something for you which then didn’t deliver. That’s why I get a bit nervous about book recommendations – it’s all so subjective! I used to be a member of an online book discussion group, and often when I admired, or raved about, a book – others would read it and hate it (Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials seemed to be one I was constantly defending!) Thomas Hardy, Dickens – and especially D.H. Lawrence used to polarise opinions a lot too!

      I was going to write some other thoughts in response to your impressions… but, my poor brain’s going to have to postpone that to sometime next week. My son was off school today, so kept me very busy – and this weekend is going to be full on hectic!

      Thanks again for your thoughts. It’s good to swap perspectives; really interesting to see where they both overlap and diverge. Have a good weekend!

      Melanie

  4. I did very much enjoy it (northern heritage means I have to make a meal of the negatives!) – so much so that it sort of misted into another post of mine. It’s great to share perspectives, and I take it as a given that the recommendation will be good given the inspirations blogged on Bookishnature…

    I empathise with the book group defending, I used to go to one and having chosen some out-of-print favourite from the 30s would be waving a battle-torn flag for it by the end… I have great memories of reading Dark Materials over a few days with flu – I loved it. I remember dreaming of polar bears with mugs of Lemsip.

    • That’s a relief that you did enjoy it! I’m pleased that it was a fruitful reading experience, despite your misgivings… and am super-pleased to hear that it even fed into some inspirations for your blog!

      Dreaming of polar bears has got to be one of the best ways to ride out a bout of flu! There’s something very appealing about having a huge and honourable armoured bear for a pal… For me, His Dark Materials was one of those special pieces of writing that really allowed me to effortlessly reconnect to my inner child – and I felt its magic in full force.

      That doesn’t always happen. Like your experience with White Crow, where you felt reminded that decades of reading and life experience, can bring both wider understanding, and yet somehow a less intense experience of a fictional world aimed more generally at younger readers, I recently tracked down and re-read a young adult novel I borrowed from the library when I was about 13 – and it was like entering somewhere familiar where all the perspectives had weirdly changed! It was so much less intense, less immediately felt and relevant to me. It was all so much more at a distance. Still a great book – but I wasn’t totally, viscerally absorbed into its world. I kept on finding myself identifying with the mums and grannies – who had been such distant, inexplicable creatures to me when I was a teenager reading the narrative… and the teenage protagonist seemed like a girl from a far off diary entry full of forgotten anxieties.

      Usually, when I read a children’s or young adult book for the first time now, my inner child comes quite quickly to the fore – but I do wonder how different that book would be if I’d read it when a child. Reading White Crow on my daughter’s recommendation gave me another perspective on it that kind of went in tandem with my own. That teenage girl intensity, which aspects of the book plugged into, appealed to her imagination. Her perplexed reaction to the priest was, and I quote “He was a really weird bloke!” All the stuff about a self-punishing fear of hell etc. was so way off her world view, her radar didn’t bleep all the reference points – but Rebecca seemed real to her, I think.

      I couldn’t help my mum-of-a-teenage-girl perspective coming to the fore in my reaction to the two girls – their lost and motherless situations – and that Ferelith was a creature starved of love and nurturing, healthy human feeling. There were brief, touching moments of the possibility of real friendship amidst all the emotional confusion, which all engaged my sympathy. The constant snatching away of those moments to create the unsettling nature of the book, was skilfully done I think.

      The obsessive, predatory, vampirish nature of Ferelith’s “love” for Rebecca seemed to have a very symbolic level to me – maybe that the darker side of Rebecca’s psyche is deeply self-obsessed and self-focused; an attempt at self-protection which, at the same time, is also deeply self-destructive. She needs to come out of that dark, subterranean tunnel of mind to return to love and trust in her dad, come to terms with difficult stuff – and to rid herself of that self-destruction. What Ferelith does at the end, did leave me thinking, whoa! That could be a damaging thing for a teenager to read – but then thought, but not if it’s read as a symbolic casting off of Rebecca’s dark self-destruction, and a returning to the light maybe, with a recognition that that subterranean side of the mind is needed for that process to happen, and as a watch over yourself – a place you need to go to process the bad stuff sometimes. I liked the dark and light being kept as a mix of grey, with all the uncertainties remaining on their tipping points at the end.

      But, I don’t want to over-egg the pudding! Just adding these thoughts to throw lightly into the mix!

  5. Mirrored characters are really powerful ways of exploring a character’s inner life aren’t they – like Paula Rego saying ‘Bertha and Jane (Eyre) are two sides of the same woman’, or the Rebecca/Mrs Danvers/Mrs de Winter thing? The idea of a ‘familiar’ self, and then the ‘otherness’ self, arising from complication of the familiar (such as Rebecca’s turmoil in reassessing her father). It reminds me of the Byron ‘vampire’ you mentioned in another post – whose reputation of course was a big influence on the Brontes, who influenced du Maurier and so on… you get a great sense of gothic angst rising through the centuries.

    Your insight/reading re Rebecca/Ferelith and the ‘subterranean’ side is fascinating… I keep thinking a little (in a vice-versa-ish, more extreme way) of Anthony Minghella’s reading/filming of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’. (And also because critics of the film picked up on the coded equation of mental imbalance with the ‘love’, something that struck me in White Crow as I said, a mid-20th-century stereotype.) There’s probably loads to explore re gender of character/gender of author too… takes me back into misty past and feminist theory, deconstruction etc – and then unfortunately the analysis could run for years…

    Not meaning to throw yet more eggs into the mix. Don’t fear I’m entering into a thesis – too much of everyday life to have room now we’re all proper grown-ups!

    So true re: what we focus on re-reading the books from our distant past – like the nurturing, mothering etc. I’m fascinated by the family relationships when I go back to these books – things as teenagers we don’t pick up on, that experience illuminates, all the areas around families impacting on identity. OK, done now!

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