A Review of White Crow, by Marcus Sedgwick
by REBECCA, July 8, 2013
The town of Winterfold is slowly falling into the sea and Rebecca doesn’t want to spend the summer there at all. Ferelith has always lived in Winterfold and though she knows all its secrets she doesn’t have anyone to share them with until Rebecca comes along. But their summer-long exploration of Winterfold’s crumbling landmarks will culminate in a game with very real consequences, and a 200-year-old experiment with death will exact its own price.
White Crow has been on my to-read list for a while now; I mean, what part of two teenagers daring each other to do creepy shit in broken churches and crumbling houses doesn’t appeal to me? And the whole thing is set against the backdrop of the history of Winterfold where, 200 years ago, a priest was taken in by a “man of science” and participated in an experiment to see if they could communicate with people after they’ve been beheaded (based, apparently, on Dr. Beaurieux, a scientist who believed that he could communicate with a person’s head after it had been guillotined because he thought consciousness persisted for thirty seconds). Come on; so cool.
Sedgwick evokes the atmosphere of Winterfold beautifully. I loved the idea of a town that was slowly being eaten by the sea:
“Ferelith has the door [to the church] moving now . . . She’s looking through the door, but she’s not looking into the church, instead, she’s looking through it. She’s looking through it because the church has no back. She can see the nave, the aisles, there are even pews between the columns, and there’s a roof to the columns, but the whole eastern end of the church is missing. What she’s looking at is the last glow of light from the sunset, the dusky sky, some wisps of cloud, and an evening star. Where the pulpit should be, the moon hangs low in the sky, as if rising out of the sea like a bathing goddess” (51).
Rebecca’s father, a cop, was accused of negligence that led to the death of a girl in London, so he and Rebecca are in Winterfold to escape all that. Their relationship is on the skids, so Rebecca is happy to find a friend in Ferelith, even if the other girl does creep her out sometimes. They become close quite quickly and Sedgwick’s portrayal of their fast and intense connection over loneliness and a teenage obsession with death definitely rang true to me. But, at heart, Rebecca is a pretty average kid and Ferelith . . . isn’t. And, little by little, Ferelith’s games, dares, and challenges become too much for Rebecca. And no wonder, when Winterfold’s sites have such a sinister history.
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
The atmosphere and setting were definitely the highlights of White Crow because, despite having many snippets of backstory, the characters really never came alive for me—they felt more like collections of characteristics and quirks. This lack of character depth was owing, mainly, to the narrative style—or, rather, styles.
White Crow braids together three different narrative strands, which switch every few pages. In the present, there’s a 1st person narrative that is from Ferelith’s perspective and a 3rd person narrative that’s limited to Rebecca’s perspective; 200 years in the past, there’s a 1st person narrative from the perspective of the priest who participated in the experiment. Now, I often love a story told from multiple perspectives—Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races or John Green and David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson are masterful examples of perspective shifting that is both necessary and beautifully executed. In the case of White Crow, though, it results in a very fractured narrative and not nearly enough time to slide into the perspectives, as they swap every couple pages (or, sometimes, every page). Further, since the 3rd person narrative is limited to Rebecca’s perspective it’s not clear to me why it’s 3rd person instead of 1st. It doesn’t seem to serve any necessary function and results in Rebecca feeling like a blank character.
The trope of the white crow and its relevance to notions of certainty and spirituality runs through the novel, but while there is a vague narrative payoff at the end (no spoilers), the questions with which the characters seem concerned—death, the afterlife, morality, ethics, and good and evil—are really not the topics with which the book seems to concern itself. The book itself seems more interested in loneliness and impermanence, elusive and ephemeral topics that are better served by atmosphere and voice than by the plot machinations that the narrative favors.
All in all, this was a short book that had a small story to tell, but read like a long book that made a bit much of its story. I enjoyed many of its elements, but was made so aware of the work the author was doing to bring it off—so many different voices! so many perspectives! look, 200 year old language!—that the payoff seemed meager. It’s a book that, had it been done differently would have been a tight little gem of a creepy story. Still, it’s an interesting book and Sedgwick is an author who is interested in a lot of the things that I’m interested in reading, so I’m going to give his Revolver (2009) and Midwinterblood (2011) a shot.
Skim by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki (2008). Although they’re not necessarily similar stories, Skim is the story of a girl who’s trying to figure out who she is by looking into the occult. An amazing graphic novel! My full review is HERE.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008). A toddler is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. That’s normal, right? Well, yeah, because this is a Neil Gaiman book.
procured from: the library