Season of Secrets, by Sally Nicholls, (2009 UK, 2011 US--cover shown at left, Scholastic, middle grade, 225 pages).
Molly and her older sister Hannah have been taken in by their grandparents after the death of their mother; their father, depressed and working odd hours, can't look after them. The girls hope that he hasn't abandoned them in this small town in the north of England forever--someday, surely, they can come home. But as the days pass, Hannah gets angrier, pushing against her new life as hard as she can, and one cold rainy night she decides that she and Molly will run away.
That night Molly, alone in the dark, sees the Wild Hunt sweeping after its prey with savage ferocity, and finds the hunted man--bloody from the teeth of the hounds. But when she brings her family back to help him, he is gone, and no-one believes he was real, except for Molly herself. As the seasons change, she will meet him, and the Wild Hunt, again....
The central story is that of a child coping with the death of her mother, but the tension and unhappiness of the day-to-day is broken by Molly's encounters with this strange man, who has stepped into her life from the old, old stories of England. He is part of a struggle that plays out every year, as the seasons change--cold versus warmth, light versus darkness, life versus death. When summer comes again, the broken and bloody stranger comes into his own, and Molly's family begins to come back together too.
Some people have suggested that Molly's stranger is a coping mechanism, a sublimated metaphor for her grief and healing. I like metaphors just as much as, if not more than, the next person, but I see no reason not to believe that Molly has, in fact, really met the Green Man aka the Oak King aka the ancient personification of the force vitale of Summer. Whichever way the reader wants to go with it, this fantasy part of the story adds depth and thought-provoking-ness to the small tight world of Molly's grief.
Although the mix of the realistic and fantastic worked beautifully for me, it might not be to every reader's taste. I can imagine that some of those who like sad family stories might find the fantasy intrusive, and those whose ears prick up at the mention of the Wild Hunt might feel disappointed that there wasn't more to that part of the story (it pretty much stays in the background like a tapestry on the wall, as opposed to actual unicorns or what have you trotting through).
Here's another anxiety I have about recommending this book, that I want to make clear. I loved Molly (not least because she is an avid reader!), and wanted to hug her, and thought she was a beautifully written character, yet she never actually does anything, in either the real part of the book, or the fantasy part. Actually, no-one really Does anything--all are moving forward, but not via brisk and vigorous action (with the possible exception of those whose progression includes a bit of wild hunting....). So I think that this is one for those readers who would, if they had to pick either Character or Plot to be marooned with on a desert island, would go with Character.
That would be me, and I thought it was a lovely book. The writing, the characters, and mix of fantasy and reality, and the mix of sadness and hope make this one of my favorites of 2011.
Here's Sally Nicholls talking about her struggle writing about the unreal at Strictly Writing. Her first book was horribly unbearably all to real (a boy dying of cancer) and never have I cried more over a book than that one. But even though I put it down every two pages to cry (Nicholls should have asked for a kickback from the makers of Kleenex), I kept reading because it was really good...
And here are some other reviews of Season of Secrets, at Fuse #8, Bloggin' 'bout Books, Madigan Reads, and at The Guardian