Back to Blackbrick, by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013) is a time travel story from Ireland that tugs at the heart and sticks in the mind in such a way as to make it hard to review. Which is to say that part of the book was utterly impressive, and made me a tad teary at the end, in a good way, but part of did not work for me at all, and I can't stop thinking about how horrified I am with regard to a certain plot twist (there will be spoilers).
Cosmo is in a tough, sad place. His brother has died. His mother has left to go be a workaholic in Australia, and now Cosmo lives with just his grandparents. Since he loves them, and has always been particularly close to his grandfather, this is not so horrible--except that his grandfather is loosing his mind to Alzheimer's. And when kids at school see him talking to a lamp-post, they start taunting Cosmo. Cosmo is desperately hoping to find some way of helping his grandfather hold on...but a social worker is starting to snoop around, threatening to send him off to a nursing home. His uncle comes back to Ireland--Cosmo must go live with him. And his beloved horse is sent away.
Then, in a rare lucid moment, Cosmo's grandfather gives him a key, and tells him to open the south gate of Blackbrick Abbey, a ruined manor house some ways away. And the story shifts, as Cosmo travels back in time and meets his 16 year old grandfather, Kevin, the stable boy/general help at Blackbrick. It is a sad and empty place--Kevin, the cook, the master, Lord Coporamore, and his spoiled little girl, Cordelia. The cook is happy to give Cosmo some house space in exchange for help...and Kevin is happy he's there. Almost at once, he embroils Cosmo in his plan to bring the young love of his life to Blackbrick; once she's there, he reckons, things will sort themselves out....
And Cosmo is glad to help bring his grandparents together. Except this girl, Maggie, isn't his grandmother...and Cosmo becomes determined to keep her from marrying Kevin.
Turns out, Cosmo doesn't have to do a thing. Coporamore finds Maggie, and after giving her permission to stay, he proceeds to rape her. And Cosmo sees this beginning...and looking back on in it retrospect, he is appalled and angry...but at the time, he simply pretends it isn't happening. And all through the next nine months that Cosmo is in the past, in a sort of happy daydream vacation from his reality, this goes on...until Maggie's child is about to be born, and Coporamore sends her off. Cosmo and the kindly cook look after her, and the child lives, and they are happy, except for Kevin, who's gone off Maggie because of what's happened to her.
Now, maybe Cosmo didn't exactly realize what was happening at first (though he seems to have had a pretty good idea), and it is written in such a way that the reader who is not familiar with the rape of servants by their masters might not grasp what is happening. But it's pretty clear that he's aware of what's happening to Maggie. Maybe not quite the whole of it, but still.... And does he help Maggie? No. No one does. Nor does Maggie ask for help. They are all too ashamed or afraid or in denial, and in mid 20th-century Ireland, maybe there wasn't much choice.
So this is shelved in the kids' section of Barnes and Nobel, but it's not a book I'd want to give my ten year old; he has plenty of time to read about rape. This one part of the book, secondary to the larger story, is more suited for older readers...but the lack of emotional effect it has on the characters within the story (Cosmo's narrative afterthoughts notwithstanding) makes it very much rape seen through the eyes of a kid.
But I, being grown-up, couldn't pretend it wasn't happening, and was upset and angry. The fact of that Maggie was being sexually assaulted I could have lived with, sadly but accepting it as part of the story, but the lack of gravitas given it (School Library Journal was able to call the book "a rollicking ride") caused me not to like this time travel part of the story at all.
I had a few other, less emotional, issues with the story. For instance, Cosmo is there in the past for nine months (a heck of a long time, that passes in a very dreamlike, rather unsatisfactory time just passing way), in a pretty tight little community, yet the daughter of the house, little Cordelia, remains almost entirely shunted off the side of the story, which just seemed totally implausible and a bit of a waste of a good character. And it's never made clear why Blackbrick ended up a ruin in the present.
But in any event, Cosmo comes back to the present after Maggie's baby is born, expecting to find his brother alive in a new and improved present--he had told Kevin about what was going to happen, and trusted that all would be well....Though that didn't work out, Cosmo also came back armed with enough knowledge of his grandfather's past to coach him in answering questions from social workers, and Cosmo's mother comes back, and the past is put to rest and all is better. And this was all actually very moving.
So basically this feels in my mind like two stories--modern Cosmo with family problems, which is a powerful and poignant story, very well told, convincing, moving as all get out, and Cosmo in the past, which is a heck of a lot more troubling, and much less convincing. And I'm not sure what sort of reader I'd hand it too. I think I am leaning toward grown-up fans of Roddy Doyle...
In any event, here's the review Back To Blackbrick got in The Guardian, which made me want to read the book very much! And at Amazon UK, there's a whole string of accolades. So though this didn't work perfectly for me, your mileage may vary.....
Disclaimer: review copy gratefully received from the publisher for Cybils review purposes.