This book seems to belong only on the margin of what might be termed fantasy. However it is such a beautifully written book with so many exceptional and engaging qualities that I would not wish to miss the opportunity of recommending it. Of course it scarcely needs my recommendation, already bestselling as it is in its native USA. However it is perhaps not yet as well known here in the UK and it emphatically needs to be, of which more later.
For the most part Serafina and the Black Cloak is perhaps best described as a mystery, a mystery with possible supernatural overtones. Yet take this element out of the picture and what is left, actually the biggest part of the narrative , is essentially a period piece about an impoverished girl living in the cellars of a luxurious mansion who develops a friendship with the young nephew of the household. The location is Biltmore Estate, Noth Carolina, genuine home of the extremely wealthy Vanderbilts. The setting is the very end of the nineteenth century. The basic idea of Serafina and her father living unbeknown to the owners in the grand house's basement, with the girl occupying her night times prowling the corridors undetected and catching rats, seems initially a little on the fanciful side. (Clever author!) This apart, much of the story has a very real and grounded feel. The house and much of its interior are described in loving detail and the period setting is beautifully evoked. Both of these aspects speak of committed research and of the writerly skill needed to bring the results evocatively to life. Word painting is achieved most effectively and, indeed, at some length, although never in the least tediously. This is compounded by the most meticulous creation of the personality, thoughts and feelings of Serafina. Sometimes almost her every step, her every breath are brought to vivid life as she moves through the relatively short time span of the narrative. Rarely, as a reader, have I felt that I have come to know a character so well, to understand her so fully, or to empathise with her so completely. This is lyrical writing of the highest order and it is achieved through some of the most beautifully constructed, classical English prose that I have encountered for a long time. Not that this is thrust in the reader's face, quite the contrary. This writing epitomises the art that conceals art, but its phrases and sentences flow mellifluously across the reading ear. They are a constant delight and convey every nuance of atmosphere, thought and feeling superbly.
In all of this the book has, for me, a great deal of old fashioned charm, in the very best sense. English reader that I am, it reminded me as I went along of some of the later works of Eva Ibbotson, The Dragonfly Pool, for example, of Helen Cresswell's delightful Moondial, and, yes, even of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden.
Serafina and the Black Cloak is a sensitive, evocative piece of writing. Serafina herself is a quite wonderful literary creation and one who generations of children, boys as well as girls, will surely delight in discovering. Equally her rapidly, but deeply developing friendship with Braeden, the young master of the house - friendship that she has never before encountered except in books - is quite wonderfully and touchingly drawn. Both young protagonists personify admirable and most likeable characteristics, whilst remaining convincingly human and vulnerable. Serafina's gutsy determination and fierce loyalty, tempered but never daunted by her very real insecurities, are conveyed every bit as strongly as the author seems to have intended.
For these qualities alone this would be a notable book. But I have not yet reached the real reasons for its unique and very special appeal. Interspersed within the lyricism of this narrative are several passages of high tension, high adrenaline action, again skilfully, but now thrillingly, written. However, this is not the whole picture either. For very gently and subtly the elements of strangeness, of mystery, of horror even, are introduced and built through this lyrical narrative. There are weird goings on in house and in the nearby woods.There are strange things about Serafina too, of which she herself is only all too well aware. The story edges further towards the supernatural. As readers, we begin to feel less sure of our ground. What seemed initially to be Serefina's fanciful imagining creeps closer to reality. Then, in the truly amazing, compulsively exciting climax, the story, helter-skelters into a new understanding. Less well handled, these startling developments could have seemed inconsistent with the earlier tenor of the story. However, such is this author's skill that, once the shocking revalations are reached, we readers see that the seeds of its shifted reality were there all along, even in such subtle clues as the chapter head embellishments. It all makes sense to us in the end, as well as to Serafina, even if it took us a while to fully register quite what sort of world we were vicariously sharing.
It is Robert Beatty's wonderfully trick of turning one story into something quite other, and then getting us to see that it was that story we were being told all along, which makes this book so very special. He pulls it off wonderfully. And if the consequent denouement seems, to an adult reader, to verge on the sentimental, then it must be remembered that children of the age of the intended readership often need everything to be 'all right in the end'. And sentimental or not, even as an adult, it is heart-warming when things work out this way. Then, in the very closing pages, the author lifts us beyond this happy-ever-after with some powerful and imaginative speculation about Serafina's life in the future. It is all quite masterly; a book to fire the imagination and stir the heart, as well as to delight, excite and shock. Wonderful.
However it is most disappointing that this book is not yet published in the UK. If there is a fear that its very specific US context and setting would make it less relevant to a British audience, this is nonesense. Being given the chance to understand a different time and culture is most important for all children, and it is something they are perfectly capable of doing. In any case the parallels between life at Blitmore and that in some of the great English households at the end of the Victorian era appear to be strong. Americans clearly 'get' Downtown Abbey, so we will get Blitmore. Of course Serafina and the Black Cloak can easily be sourced via the Internet, and this is much better than having no access at all. But, as a firm believer in both this novel and in 'real' independent bookshops, I think an actual book presence here would be preferable by far.