Writing a review of The Museum of Mary Child, by Cassandra Golds (Kane Miller, 2009, 329pp, for readers 10ish on up) is a bit daunting. I somehow want to convey just how much I enjoyed this book without spoiling it at all. I hope I succeed, because I think this book is rather special...
A long while ago, near a city that isn't a real city, a girl named Heloise lives next door to the Museum of Mary Child. She has never been inside it. Her godmother, cold and unloving, shows visitors through it, and always the visitors leave disturbed and shaken.
Heloise who is not allowed to have friends. She is not allowed to play. She is not allowed to know the meaning of love--her bible, the one book she can read, has been edited, and pages glued together, to keep her from anything that speaks of that forbidden subject. But one day, hidden under the floorboards of her room, she finds a doll. And, having at last found something to love, something that needs protecting, Heloise is about to escape.
Her escape will take her into a family of orphaned girls, trained as a church choir (I loved this part most of all). It will bring her into contact with envoys of the Society of Caged Birds, who fly through the city at night doing good deeds. It will take her to the prison, and the mad house next door to it, and, at last, it will bring her face to face with what lies inside the Museum of Mary Child.
This book is many things. It is a fairy tale, and it is a Gothic horror story. It is a lovely story about a girl discovering who she is and growing up. It is a fantasy, with magic that is real. It is a little bit of a mystery. And at the book's heart is a story about the redemptive power of love, with gentle allusions to Christianity. All these elements are happening at the same time, like juggling balls flying through the air, but they are held together in coherent form by Golds' wonderful characterization of Heloise.
I was riveted, and lost track of time and space. I also had to occasionally work hard at suspending disbelief, and I remain uncertain about the ending. But boy, did I have a good time reading this one. It felt to me a little bit like Elizabeth Goudge crossed with Oscar Wilde's fairy tales...and if you think you might know what I mean, you will probably like this book very much!
Note on the cover: This is not what I would have chosen. The girl show looks far too modern to be Heloise, and the whole ensemble leans too far, I think, toward the Gothic end of things, and doesn't convey enough of the book's fairy tale-ness. At right is the Australian cover, which doesn't match my image of the book either...
The Museum of Mary Child has been nominated for the Cybils in the Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy category, for which I am a panelist. Here are other two other reviews, at Kids Lit and Sweet Trees.
PS: The museum is the creepiest museum I have ever read about. Anywhere.
PPS: Golds is also the author of Clair-de-lune (2006); after reading this review of it at the Guardian, it is high on my list of books to read after I have fulfilled my Cybils obligations!