Author: Lucy Strange
This book is quite the strange beast. I was expecting a sort of Alice in Wonderland/Secret Garden mash-up, that’s the impression I got from the blurb and the opening reinforced that; with the focus being on the mystery of the forest and the weird and wonderful unexplained witchery in there.
However having finished the book, looking back I would go so far as to call the opening completely misleading. After the first few chapters the fantasy evaporates quickly and what we’re left with is something much closer to something I would term historical soft-horror. The shift in tone parallels the emotional journey of the main character, which is nice I suppose, but if you want the mythical fantasy, pick a different book.
That said I’d like to note that doesn’t make the book bad, just different from my expectations.
Another thing to note would be that while I say ‘Horror’ the book is still 9+ appropriate, it’s not so much horrific as it is really good at playing on the feelings of Henry, our protagonist, and the fears she shares with a lot of her younger readers, namely, a complete lack of agency in one’s own life. Henry is an imaginative and vivacious twelve-year-old, but that doesn’t matter, no one cares what Henry thinks or what Henry wants, thinks or feels (except the reader that is), she just gets shunted from place to place because Adults Know Best. The situation is out of Henry’s hands, she is completely helpless in a situation where her mother is the forfeit and in that way the book is very scary.
Now onto the History; this book is set a few years after world war one, this has a lot of bearing on the book, with the war hovering over everything like a plague no one really wants to talk about that none the less infects everything. As we are seeing the whole thing from a young girls perspective the war gets shunted even more to the side, adding extra bricks to the wall between the young Henry and the adults she has to deal with.
The themes were all so well enforced and Henry herself so sympathetic and lovable that despite the fact I didn’t go in expecting anything like what I got I was sucked into the whole affair, deeply engrossed and fascinated.
If I have a complaint it would be this; while Henry herself is wonderful and we get to know her very well I would have liked to know her family better. The family relationships are very central so when their bonds are tested I would have like a few more reasons to pine desperately for Henry’s Mum with her, rather than simply feeling bad for Henry herself.
I found Nightingale Wood an unsettling read, the way it pulls on certain threads of history about past medical practices was especially chilling. Yet I’m going to recommend it; for Henry, for the history and the complexity of the grief presented in a way both friendly to young literature and beautiful.