A unique and magical middle-grade story that combines hauntingly beautiful prose with a fast moving and cinematic plot.
On the remote stormy island of Blightsend the ‘turnaway girls’ live to serve in silence, meekly transforming the music of their masters into gold (known as shimmer). Twelve year old turnaway girl Delphernia Undersea, however, is different. She can’t make shimmer and, despite the constant beatings from Mother Nine, she finds herself unable to fulfil her assigned role. Delphernia longs to raise her own voice in song. But how can she? On Blightsend there are deadly consequences for disobedience.
Debut author, Hayley Chewins, is a published poet and this is immediately evident the moment you open this book. Every word is carefully chosen and the text reads almost like poetry. Indeed, the use of repeated refrains (such as “girls with singing voices are swallowed by the sea”) gives the whole book a musical and lyrical feel. Some readers may struggle with this stylistic choice but older children (the book is aimed at readers aged 10 years and older) are likely to be pulled into the haunting and magical spell created by such beautiful prose.
Books with such strong emphasis on the text itself don’t usually appeal to me. (Indeed, if you read my reviews on a regular basis, you’ll know I err much more towards the ‘crash, bang, wallop school of fiction’ and enjoy nothing more than a good chase or fight scene). However, I’m happy to make an exception in the case of The Turnaway Girls. This is because the carefully crafted lyrical prose is used to tell what is undoubtedly a cracking good plot with plenty of action – there’s even an exciting chase scene when Delphernia and her new found friend, Linna, are fleeing from the Custodian as well as a truly cinematic climax.
The characterisation is also incredibly strong. Told in the first person from Delphernia’s point of view, we are close to her throughout the book, able to feel both her fear and her pain. Even more impressive is the way the reader is able to easily identify with the other characters even though we only see them through Delphernia’s eyes. I was particularly intrigued by the Childer-Queen who receives very little ‘page time’ but still manages to be a fully-rounded and complex character.
This succinct storytelling is one of the hallmarks of this book. It is relatively short (just 272 pages) but there is a lot of depth and an amazing amount of world building. Indeed, the setting is almost a character in its own right with a set of rules and history that is in some respects reminiscent of fairytales and in others your very worst nightmare.
The Turnaway Girls is so distinct and unique, that it’s hard to think of a comparable book to recommend. The only one that I can think of that is in any way similar is the now classic Skellig by David Almond.
Date: January 2019
Publisher: Walker Books
Author: Hayley Chewins