Book review: The Book of Hidden Wonders by Polly Crosby

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

While there is a great deal to be said for the fact that the truth will set you free, what is often overlooked is now painful the embrace of that truth can be.

It is necessary and far preferable to wrapping yourself in a suffocating blanket of lies and self-delusion but getting there can be devlishly difficult, especially when like Romilly Kemp, the protagonist in Polly Crosby’s wondrously, quirkily, emotionally resonant debut novel, The Book of Hidden Wonders, you’re not even aware that it’s the truth you are actually seeking.

Certainly when Romilly begins to realise things are not quite right with her dad and that the man he was is increasingly far from present in their daily interactions, she simply knows she has to work out what is going on if she’s ever to feel to comfortable with life again.

What she doesn’t know is what awaits down this garden path and where it will all lead; you suspect she may still have started down the road anyway because the need for answers is that pronounced and impelling, but you wonder how quickly she would have run towards the eventual truths revealed if she had truly known their full extent.

Would any of us, really?

We are all hardwired to find answers in the face of gnawing, looming uncertainty, it’s something that has enabled humanity to be as successful as we are, but being pushed by an insistent inner need to unearth answers can often find itself coming hard up against our fear of what we’ll find when we do.

“When Dad had first shown me my room, I spent the entire day in there, not daring to believe all this space belonged to me. There were dustsheets over the furniture, and in the corner, a pretty parasol leant against the wall as if the young lady it had belonged to had left it there moments before. The first time I opened it, it showered dust all around me, and I walked the length of the room, holding it above my head in a sedate manner, pretending I was as posh as its previous owner.

I tipped the kitten onto the bed, and studied him. ‘You look like someone important,’ I said, ‘and important people have long names. How about Captain Montgomery of the Second Regiment?’ Montgomery seemed satisfied with his name, and curled up happily on the quilt.” (P. 7)

Certainly, when Romilly, who lives alone with her idiosyncratic artist father in a tumbling down farmhouse in Suffolk, a place rich in history but also behind by the forward march of time too, begins to look for the answers, it’s with a sense that she’ll come to understand why her father has changed so much.

What she discovers, and this is, of course, best left to the reading of a novel which as is deeply heartfelt as it is charmingly quirky, is that while she knows she is loved and cared for, that there is a great deal more truth waiting out there to be found.

How she finds it is unveiled by Crosby that will enchant and delight you and then seismically and movingly impact you in ways you simply don’t see coming.

The Book of Hidden Wonders is that rich and rare book that begins one way and promises one thing, or rather seems to promise one thing – it’s best when it comes to the novel’s narratives and themes to leave your assumptions well and truly at the door – and then ends up becoming quite another.

Polly Crosby (image courtesy Curtis Brown Creative)

The enchanting thing is that these two seemingly disparate halves, one bucolically and one not so, is how uniformly and perfectly they go together.

We come to understand through writing which is delightful and emotionally insightful all at once, which soars with glorious prose that never feels remotely beautiful or inaccessible, how Romilly is and how she comes to be something else almost entirely.

The one constant, even in the darker, worst of times in the second half of the book, is how loved and encapsulated in nurturing care and concern she is.

Whether it is her doting father, who shoots to fame on the strength of a series of books that feature Romilly and her cat Monty (Captain Montgomery of the Second Regiment to those who do not know him well; is that not the best name for a cat, fictional or otherwise, that you’ve ever seen?) on all kinds of adventures, or her grandmother or her often absent mother, her oft-absent friend Stacey, or even mysterious circus performer Lidiya, Romilly is wrapped up in the kind of love that helps you weather all kinds of adversity.

It doesn’t make it easier, no, but it makes the bad times survivable, something Romilly discovers as her search for truth, via the books her father wrote and her own plucky, often unflappable tenacity, bring the kinds of answers that question whether it was wise to begin the search in the first place.

“I stepped closer to the edge and peered over, confident she was hiding just below, but the ledge she had been on was empty. I looked round at the edges of the quarry, Was she hiding, just out of sight, sniggering at the look of desperation on my face?

‘Stacey!” I shouted, the blood pumping in my ears, my voice echoing out over the water. I looked down in desperation at the flotsam floating below, and tried not to see bodies.

‘Stacey,’ I said again, the deafening silence surrounding me as I tried to listen for any sign that she was there.

But she had gone.” (P. 217)

Tough though her quest may be, what makes The Book of Hidden Wonders such a delightfully transcendent, immersively affecting read is how rich in love and inclusion and family it is.

Crosby doesn’t sugarcoat a thing in a book rich in imagination, wonder, adventure and carefree joy, and it is made plain that for all the loveliness in Romilly’s life, there is a great deal that isn’t lovely at all, but she never departs from the fact that love is the anchor that keeps her grounded.

Refreshingly Crosby never once resorts to twee, unrealistic sentiment or glib emotiveness to drive the point home.

Rather, she lets Romilly’s growing up in a world where everyone thinks they know her thanks to the books her father wrote, speak for itself in its full scope of contentment, happiness, worry, fear, uncertainty and transient joy.

This is a novel that for all its magic and wonder is grounded in the very real concerns of life where what we think our life is and what it may be offer turn out to be something altogether and unsettlingly different when the truth finally comes to light.

Throughout Romilly’s journey from an unassuming nine-year-old girl who hears whispering voices in her room at night and who is convinced a panther wanders the moors near her to a middle teenager grappling with the dramatically fast pace of life’s unexpected changes, The Book of Hidden Wonders is a brilliantly-realised and wholly-touching story of what it means to find your reality challenged and subverted and how with love and tenacity, despite what you might think in the thick of the chaos and uncertainty, you might just come out the other side okay after all (well, eventually; remember no one said it would be easy and it certainly isn’t for this young lady who will take hold of your heart and never let it go).

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