‘In the darkness I have no limits, no boundaries: I bleed into the hugeness of the night, reaching out and growing strong, filling up with power.’
‘I rise up, towards the surface.
Through velvet blue into grey dimness.
Up towards the light.’
Certainly an interesting opening, the beautiful yet haunting description of being underwater was a jarring and abrupt way to start the novel.
Fourteen-year-old Evie has been with her foster parents, Amy and Paul, for a few years now, but has only just trusted them enough to tell them about the broken rib that she received when she was younger. After having surgery to remove the offending fragment her uncle Ben suggests carving it into a little dragon, and Evie wishes with all her might for the dragon to come alive and make sure she never gets hurt again.
She wishes as hard as she can, hoping beyond hope, until the dragon wakes her from her sleep. He’s beautiful, a mixture of blue and silver-grey, more like a miniature version of a cat than a lizard. They go on night-time adventures together, seeing how beautiful the world is bathed in moonlight and allowing Evie freedom from Amy’s near-stifling levels of care. One night, Evie and the dragon hear people partying in the graveyard nearby, where Amy and Pual’s son, Amy’s parents and Ben’s wife are buried, and Evie is disgusted… But when she thinks about visiting her mother Fiona’s grave, she can understand why people would want to celebrate in a cemetary.
Evie dealt with abuse from her maternal grandparents after her and Fiona moved in with them following her father’s death. Evie doesn’t want to open up about the things that happened to her back then, because when she thinks about it it’s like she’s being transported back through time, her past becoming more real than her present.
Her tutor and confidante, Ms Winters, suggests that Fiona also might have been abused by her parents, but Evie thinks that makes everything worse: that would mean Fiona knew what they were doing to her and still allowed her to live in that house.
But when Evie notices that Paul and Ben are going out on late-night adventures too, she wonders if they’re planning on getting revenge for what happened to her, finally giving her the justice she deserves. On the one hand she doesn’t want them to do anything that will fundamentally change who they are, but on the other hand she just wants her grandparents to get their comeuppance.
Then one day, Evie comes home from school to discover a police car outside her home. The officers tell her that her grandparents are dead: their house burnt down the night before, seemingly after someone left a cigarette burning downstairs. Evie’s finally gotten closure on that period of her life, but was it a straightforward accident like it seems or were darker forces at play?
This was the #SundayYA book club pick for November, and I’ve only just finished it because it was so boring.
It’s very narrative based, constantly seguing into Evie’s internal monologues and ruminations on how she feels about everything that happened in her past. We don’t really get information about anything that happened to Evie, as she doesn’t like to talk about it or think about it, which means there isn’t really any context. We know her rib was broken, so the abuse was obviously physical and unrestrained, but because there are no details it’s hard to completely understand the extent of the things she went through. I can understand that Alexia Casale chose to tackle it in this way, making it less about what happened than the emotional scars that it’s left Evie with, but it means that the bulk of Evie’s story is left untold.
All in all, literally nothing happens. There’s no action, nothing to drive the plot. There’s a boy who likes Evie who she rejects (he gives her nightshade, the Latin name of which is ‘belladonna’ – beautiful woman – but Evie understands it to be him giving her a poisonous plant) and who ends up bullying her, but that’s not really resolved. Evie promises to tell her best friends, Lynne and Phee, about her past one day… But that doesn’t happen by the end of the book. She matchmakes for Ben and Ms Winters, but that’s only just starting when the book ends. There’s lots of random plot lines that don’t get properly developed, and get dropped before they truly begin.
The things that do happen are all off the page. It’s implied that it was Evie who burnt down her grandparents’ house, but the dragon doesn’t wake her up for that adventure: she gets home from school the next day and that’s when she receives the news. It’s not surprising at all, though: within the first few chapters Evie says “Don’t worry, […] I promise not to burn our house down”, and Amy is constantly checking the batteries in their fire alarms, adding up to the least subtle foreshadowing I’ve ever encountered.
There are hints towards things that Evie did in her past, with her thinking ‘I never get to hurt anyone half as much as they hurt me. Except just that once’, and then admitting later ‘I have never been able to remember exactly what I did to create all that blood and that look on Fiona’s father’s face. All I remember is how wonderful I felt’. But, again, these comments are never put into context, leaving the readers mind to run wild with theories and thoughts on what exactly she did.
I never thought I could be bored by a book featuring a dragon, but I was. I’ve heard much better things about Alexia’s second novel, ‘House of Windows’, but after how long it took me to trudge through this one I’m feeling much less inclined to pick it up.
If you like slow-burning books that rely on narrative rather than the plot, you’ll love this book. Alexia’s writing is under-stated and quietly beautiful, which is why I gave this book a second star, but I much prefer books that have a story, rather than a stream of not-so-subtle hints.