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.