CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 27. . . .March 24, 2017
Toronto, ON: Dancing Cat Books, 2016.
241 pp., trade pbk. & html, $14.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-77086-478-8 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-77086-483-2 (html).
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Chasity Findlay.
I turn around to check the rest of the room. Cardboard sheets like the ones I saw rolled into Jonah’s knapsack hang from the other walls. The sheet closest to me is edged and boxed with thick black marker. In the top corner is written: Experiment Marlie Luellen. Nothing is written in the space beneath.
The sheets next to it are covered with Jonah’s journal pages. Graphs and studies covering every inch of cardboard. At the top of each sheet is written: Experiment LLB. The name startles me like a shriek in the woods. Is the answer to the question here?
As I step closer to get a better look, my foot catches on something. On the ground is the most beautiful chest I’ve ever seen. Wood overlaid with decorative copper plating. Delicate patterns of interlaced diamonds and whorls. The chest Jonah pulled from the rocks in the Rock Pit. Underneath, cradling it, is the green frog blanket from the box in the back room.
I crouch down and carefully lift the lid. Inside is the wrapped bundle that made Jonah cry. I see now what made it so familiar when I first saw him handling it: the bundling cloth is soiled and stiff from being in the ground, but underneath the decay, it’s identical to the other green frog blanket. To my green blanket.
When I pick it up, the bundle buckles and jangles like a bag of gold. Even as I imagine the possible richness of a treasure, my heart starts to pound. My body begins to beg me to stop, urges me to get away before it’s too late. Aidie’s voice, the memory of it, echoes in my mind: You have to get out of here, Gemma.
But my hands keep unwrapping.
Inside the cloth, bones clatter to disorder. Bones like the ones Jonah sometimes showed me after foraging in the woods, or in his textbooks as fine-ink drawings of skeleton parts. The difference is, these ones are miniature.
Too-small ribs and femurs and metatarsals and more and more slight bones laid out in a pile. And, last of all, the bones Jonah never showed me: a tiny human skull.
Gemma, 15, has lived a very sheltered life. She lives with her father, Jonah, on a small island in New Brunswick, with no cell phones, internet, or computers. The only young person she has to communicate with on the island is her imaginary friend, Aidie. Gemma gets homeschooled by Peg, the island’s diner owner. Gemma’s mother was unfit to care for her and has not been in her life since she was a baby, leaving her with her not so attentive or affectionate father. Jonah, who works as the ferry captain and lighthouse keeper and spends much of his time in his top-secret lab on his evolutionary experiments, hoping to establish himself as a scientist and publish a big study.
As Gemma approaches her sixteenth birthday, she begins to develop independence of thought and action, which leads her to wonder about where her mother is, why she left, and to question everything Jonah has said about her early life. When a mysterious stranger, Marlie, arrives on the island, Gemma is intrigued by her presence, setting off a chain of events that unveils horrifying secrets and lies. Gemma’s discoveries lead her down a path of self-discovery that forces her to dig deeper to seek the truth about her mother and the stories her father has told her.
The Darkhouse is author Barbara Radecki’s debut novel. Prior to transitioning to writing, Radecki worked as an established actor, appearing in many television shows, films, and commercials. She has also written several screenplays that have been optioned or sold.
The Darkhouse is a young adult thriller unlike any other. It grabs readers’ attention right from the beginning and commands it throughout. Right away, readers will sense that something is not quite right with Jonah, his experiments, and his relationship with Gemma, but it will not be easy for them to put their finger on what exactly it is. The Darkhouse is different than many other teen thrillers in the sense that the outcome is unpredictable. The book is less of a whodunit and more of a “what is really going on here?”. The plot will leave readers on the edge of their seats and making predictions along the way as Gemma embarks on her quest of self-discovery.
Radecki’s work developing Gemma’s character through the first person narration is masterfully done. Her elegant prose is likely to capture readers’ attention, encouraging them to take note of the many instances of powerful diction as they learn more about Gemma and her life. Radecki demonstrates skill at bringing the character to life through showing, not telling, allowing readers to come to understand who Gemma is through her thoughts, feelings, actions, and flashbacks from her youth. The development of Gemma’s character will allow readers to connect with her, empathize with her experiences and feelings, and become involved in the story as she digs deeper into her background.
An important and compelling element of this book is the setting and its description. Radecki does a fantastic job of describing the beautiful, serene landscape of this New Brunswick island. The setting is a crucial aspect of this book as the plot could not have been the same if it was to take place in any other location. For this reason, it was very important that the author do justice to its description. Radecki nails it on this one—she paints a picture for the reader to visualize where and how the action is taking place. The beautiful landscapes of ocean, rock, and forest are described with pristine detail for the reader.
The Darkhouse has many characteristics that will appeal to the target audience. The first person narration and character development of the protagonist encourage readers to become engaged in the story. Additionally, the plot is unlike that of many other young adult thrillers in the way that it is unpredictable and suspenseful. Many readers will appreciate that the novel does not wrap up perfectly and predictably with a tiny red bow. The Darkhouse is a thrilling book that will take readers on a wild ride, forcing them to hold their breath until the very last page.
Chasity Findlay is a high school English teacher and a graduate student at the University of Manitoba.
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