By Tania Unsworth
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Format: Print ARC
Publication Date: September 27, 2016
To Sum It Up: Daisy Fitzjohn has never ventured outside the grounds of her family’s once stately home, Brightwood Hall. The only other person Daisy has ever known is her mother, who’s still haunted by a family tragedy from her childhood. One day, Daisy’s mother fails to return home from a shopping trip, and Daisy’s fear only heightens when a stranger turns up at Brightwood, with intentions that quickly reveal themselves to be sinister. As Brightwood becomes less and less of the haven it’s always been for Daisy and her mother, Daisy must face the very real possibility of escaping into the unknown world that waits beyond Brightwood’s gates.
Review: I’ve always been fascinated by grand houses, even way before ever watching a single episode of Downton Abbey. They’re even more intriguing when they’re shrouded in mystery, as is the case with the titular Brightwood Hall. Once majestic, Brightwood has fallen into disrepair over the years and now houses only two members of the Fitzjohn family: our protagonist, Daisy, and her mother, Caroline. In the book’s prologue, we learn that Caroline lost her parents and older brother in a tragic accident when she was very young, and when the story resumes in the present, it quickly becomes apparent that adult Caroline has never recovered from the loss.
Despite being a middle grade novel, Brightwood is quite dark in tone. Caroline has never allowed Daisy to set foot outside the gates of Brightwood, and Daisy has never met another human being besides her mother. Caroline has essentially turned Brightwood Hall into an enormous safe house, only leaving for regular supply runs. There’s more than routine behind them, though; Daisy observes that the basement is loaded with more provisions than two people will ever need, and yet her mother continues to buy in bulk. Caroline also has a daily ritual of collecting random objects as mementos of each day and storing them in boxes, and she’s filled the house with years and years’ worth of these Day Boxes.
We already have a heartbreaking story established when it takes an even darker turn. Caroline fails to return home after a trip to the supply store, and suddenly there’s a stranger on Brightwood’s grounds—past the gates. I don’t want to give away too much about this unwelcome individual’s backstory, but he is certainly not a friend. Although this antagonist’s motives and intentions are always transparent, you don’t know what’s going to happen to Daisy, who’s never been left alone for this long and has never experienced the world outside of her home. The suspense is rather intense and gripping, and it’s maintained until almost the end of the novel.
In the meantime, Daisy is without any human help and without any means to contact anyone, Caroline having previously disposed of both their phone and TV. I say “human help” because Brightwood also has fantasy elements to it. Daisy’s friends include a talking rat and a talking horse topiary. The book blurs the line between fantasy and reality very skillfully here; just as you’re kept guessing as to the story’s ultimate resolution, you’re also constantly wondering what’s real and what might be imaginary.
My school aged self definitely would have enjoyed Brightwood as much as my adult self did. The book explores some quite serious themes but without becoming too weighty for younger readers. The suspense build-up was very well done, and Brightwood Hall was a richly drawn setting for this tale.
All in All: Brightwood is simultaneously a thrilling and poignant middle grade novel, with plenty here to appeal to adult readers, too.