My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I wanted to love this and for the most part I did until I got to the ending which plummeted to about the 1-2 star rating but more on that later under a spoiler warning. It’s both simple and ambitious at the same time. The story is simple in that it’s a tale of a young girl trying to get help with her bullying problem. The ambitious is in how it’s told. In prose set in the early 1980s and in art in 2017.
Mary’s story is revealed in her diary. She’s a resident of the titular Thornhill, a small orphanage where she lives on the top floor interacting very little with anyone. Mary has selective mutism (reasons unclear but it is an impediment to her being placed with a family). She’s obviously intelligent, a reader and she makes puppets. She’s extremely talented at the latter.
Ella lives in the house next door to Thornhill’s ruins, about 35 years after Mary’s time. Her story is told without words with the exception of a few notes from her father and a couple newspaper articles. Her story is revealed panel by detailed panel of art. It’s exceptionally well done. We see her unpacking, looking sadly at her mother’s picture so we can assume that her mother is gone (presumed dead by me at least) and from her father’s notes he’s working so much he’s never home, leaving Ella very lonely. She starts to see a light on in the third floor of the abandoned Thornhill and then the shadow of a girl.
The story goes back and forth between the two girls separated by decades. Mary is bullied by another orphan who is pretty and rules the other girls with an iron fist turning them all against Mary. Even the counselors seem to side with her but she is flawed. She keeps being returned by potential parents (because she’s manipulative and acts out). Ella continually trespasses on the site finding old doll after old doll/puppet and learns to restore them.
Mary’s problems escalate as Thornhill is slated to be shut down and her one supporter, the cook, is let go. Worse she’s to be rehomed with her bully so she sets out to take revenge.
And up to this point I liked it a lot. I thought the art was lovely and it’s not exactly easy to convey a wordless story but Smy manages it. Though this is a big 500+ page hard cover and it sometimes doesn’t serve the art well as some of the detail is lost to the book binding which is disruptive (I don’t say this often but this would have been better as an eRead). It’s gothic and well done and then there’s the end. There’s going to be spoilers now so I’d not read further unless you want to see the spoiler (I’ll keep them as light as I can but I feel I need to discuss the ending).
Okay spoilers now
I hate this ending. Now I didn’t want to see Mary go through with her revenge (which was to set the other girl on fire). Mary did see by this point that her bully had a lot of problems and sadness of her own and almost forgave the bullying as a result. However, the bully gets away free from any consequence. I could almost live with that but what came next bugs me. Mary is free from her (because the bully literally runs away rather than be rehomed). This is what she wanted. She’d have been rehomed on her own (unless I suppose someone found and returned the other girl). Instead of accepting that or taking off on her own, Mary does something drastic to never leave Thornhill and I just didn’t feel we had enough of a reason for what she did.
Worse, Ella is swept up in this. She joins Mary as a haunt in Thornhill. So there is no happy ending. I would have bought the stark ending if we had had more of Mary’s motivation to do what she did after her bully had gone. I could have underst ood it if the bully hadn’t run away.