Author and artist: Pam Smy
Type: Fiction, comics
I read it: September 2018
Almost the entire vibe of Thornhill can be experienced by its cover—who is this figure in the window? The derelict historical building occupies an overgrown lot in the present day, and Ella, a curious and solitary girl, has moved into a new house right next to it. She’s not sure if she’s seeing a ghost or a real person, but she’s willing to adventure toward the mansion and stumble upon a few clues.
The mansion, we soon find out, was used as an orphanage for girls just a couple of decades previous. In this setting we learn the story of Mary, a figure even lonelier than a regular orphan, an outsider among outsiders. Her story is done in prose, the sections reflecting diary entries from 1982. Ella’s story is all images, each one done in an ominous black/white/gray palette. No shocks of color here to put symbols behind items—the book stays suited to a rainy day, with the best visual effect being the full two-page spreads of total black that always occur before flipping between the parallel narratives.
If this sounds like a slow burn, it is, and a carefully crafted one at that. The broad plot is easy to see coming, and it’s a book that doesn’t necessarily require twists. The suspense is in how exactly the tragedy in the past unfolded, and how Mary relates to it as she learns the history. The build pays off in a surprisingly particular way, with a few scenes in the very last pages that actually caused me to shiver. (Spine-tinglers do exist!) There’s nothing quite like turning the page of a physical book, and a visual reveal makes the action all the more exciting. By the end, I realized that the reader becomes the next curious sightseer and therefore grows closer to the character of Ella.
It’s hard to tell which part of “graphic novel” Thornhill most leans into, the “graphic” part or the “novel” part. Is Thornhill a comic with more exposition than most comics, or rather a novel with accompanying illustrations to flesh out the story? It’s both, although I usually force myself to consider these ambiguous books as one or the other (for example, Continent is really just seven short stories that don’t even directly connect, but it seemed referred to most often as a novel, so I went with that). Another gray area (so much gray in this book) is due to target audience—the bright yellow and red “CHILDREN’S” library label on the spine seems a ludicrous joke when reading this gloomy black tome as dusk sets in. It’s probably meant for the young adult set and not actual children children, sure, but I’m not still not sure at what age I would have been able to handle the creepiness.
Definitions aside, Thornhill occupies one of those coveted niches, where it gets the honor of simply being itself, and a prime specimen for the autumn season at that.