Review by Hira Peracha
Tundra Books (Penguin Random House), April 2020
240 pages, hardcover, $21.99 CAD, 9781770499249
Ages 12+, Grades 7+
Young Adult, Mystery, Fantasy, Magic Realism
The house was indeed a “looker.” It exuded character in all of its architectural details—from the mansard roof and tower to the exterior flourishes that included bracketing and gingerbread. It was also spacious: three stories tall, with high ceilings, wide-plank pine floors, and large windows of old glass that made Lucy feel as if she were staring through ripples of water. As far as Lucy was concerned the house’s only flaw was the dowdy decorating—old-fashioned in style and in varying shades of brown, maroon, and mustard. She imagined it as a beautiful woman wearing an unflattering dress.
When Lucy Crisp, who’s halfway through her second gap year between high school and university, receives an acceptance letter to the floral artistry program at Ladywyck Lodge, the last thing she expects to come across is a town filled with witches and fairies.
Like many young readers, Lucy is struggling to discover what she’s passionate about and what her future holds. Upon acceptance to Ladywyck Lodge, she moves to the town of Esther Wren. Her first impressions of the town located on the outskirts of New York are that it’s quaint and old-fashioned. Her father buys her the beautiful old Quill house at a bargain, from an eccentric realtor.
Then strange things start happening. Household objects appear and disappear. Residents signal to Lucy that something else is going on in this town. She realizes that her neighbours are very odd, and the lady who sold Lucy the old Quill house is not only eccentric, but also quite sketchy. After she witnesses her neighbours doing a ritual in their backyard, Lucy investigates and what she finds not only changes her perspective of the town but affects her life as a student at Ladywyck Lodge and a resident of the old Quill house. For the average person, Ladywyck Lodge may be a normal university building with lectures catered toward those with an affinity for the arts. But for another group of folks, it’s a place where witches can roam free, untethered by the need to keep their identities secret. And when the old Quill house suddenly disappears, Lucy is ready to dive straight into the world of witches to figure out where it went and who took it.
Lucy Crisp and the Vanishing House is author Janet Hill’s debut novel. Her whimsical and elegant narrative flows us through Lucy’s story and is perfectly matched with her beautiful illustrations. However, as the story progresses, subtle tones of mystery and thriller weave in and heighten the tension. Hill’s nostalgic storytelling and ability to create an increasingly tense atmosphere keeps readers engaged until the last page.
The buildings in the novel are anthropomorphized and treated like characters themselves. Ladywyck Lodge exudes elegance. It’s alive and fluttering under the buzz of witches learning to craft and sharpen their skills. On the other hand, the Quill house is both comforting and eerie at the same time; as if the disappearing objects are part of a little game it is playing on Lucy.
Hill’s approach to defining witches is thought-provoking, and intentionally touches on stereotypes. Witches are often portrayed with green skin, crooked noses, and magic broomsticks. In Lucy’s world, witches transcend simple stereotypes, but they are split into two groups: Goodies and Baddies. The Baddies are power-hungry and sometimes selfish, but also hard workers, creative, and problem-solvers. Instead of classifying them as outright evil, they are smart and sometimes wicked. The Goodies are not only as their name describes them, but they also value collectivism and community, rather than being on their own. Their skills are oriented towards earthly matters, such as the culinary arts and horticulture. However, there is more to the witches’ identities than this. In fact, they can be quite complicated, and aren’t just categorized by characteristics that society considers “undesirable” for women (such as independence), but also by their abilities (for example, whether they’re Growers or Clairvoyants). Hill’s fresh take on witches is appreciated, as our identities are not only based on stereotypical binaries and outward appearances, and these are important issues for young readers who are still figuring out their own identities.
Not only is Lucy Crisp and the Vanishing House beautifully written and illustrated, it’s a magic-filled fantasy, with a thrilling mystery that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Hira Peracha is a graduate from the Psychology and Creative Writing programs at the University of British Columbia. She enjoys reading and writing fiction and poetry.