by Catherine Catmull
This book is a book to write about.
I first picked it up on Thom Barthelmess’s (curator of The Butler) recommendation, but was also instantly attracted to the beauty of the cover. A cream background contrasted with eerie, sharp bare tree branches echoes the themes of light and dark in the text. A giant swan opens its wings at the top of the cover, inviting you to look at the beautifully embossed, maroon, shiny cursive-like font of the title. The stark white of the back cover seems stripped of feeling, except for the back of two girls walking away, close in physical space but looking in different directions. Ingenious design here.
The text itself is lyrical, insightful, and entirely imaginative. Like Shannon Hale, Catmull pulls you slowly into her world, and in order to follow, you have to surrender your skepticism and let yourself be taken over by the lush phrases and astonishing world building. As with Neil Gaiman or Kathi Appelt, you must relinquish control let the author lead you through a story that will surely be magical, and maybe will even change you.
The plot centers on two very different sisters, Summer and Bird, who wake up one day to find their parents missing in their forest home. Softspoken, warm Summer and the young, spunky, but selfish Bird are overwhelmed with confusion, rejection, and mystery, but decide to follow a cryptic note from their mother and are drawn to the woods in search of their parents. Much like Narnia or The Looking Glass, the sisters enter into the fantasy world of Down, where they take separate, parallel journeys as they try to find their parents. Through their own experiences—Bird falling under the power of The Puppeteer, a manipulative bird who has stolen her mother’s crown, and Summer finding herself stuck in a nest high in the sky with nothing but a small egg—they find that maybe what they were searching for wasn’t necessarily their parents, but themselves. Touching on complex themes of jealousy, desire for power, betrayal, guilt, anger, the dynamic nature of family relationships, courage, inner strength, hope, and freedom, this book is mesmerizing and thought provoking. I admit that as I was reading it, I went through cycles of emotion—anger, fear, irritation, hope, joy, catharsis, and a type of tender sorrow that reaches down deep where I can feel my chest sting a bit with wonder.
Catmull writes in a third-person omniscient perspective, one that is difficult to write in and hard to keep your reader involved in, because the narrator knows every character, and can write from each of their viewpoints. Catmull, however, uses the perspective to add layer and layer upon the story, sometimes jumping in time, sometimes giving the reader secret information that Summer and Bird do not know. Abundant with the mythology of birds and elements of fairy tale, Catmull entwines sections of her story like a skilled weaver, leaving her reader with a one-of-a-kind, extraordinary piece of art.
An eloquent, magical, unsettling, brave debut novel, this is one you want to read.
“All their lives, Bird had been the difficult one, the unmanageable child, and Summer the good girl who could always be relied on. But Summer could see that Bird had always found her own story and chosen to follow it, and Summer envied that. Most of all, she envied the magnetic bird-soul that had told Bird what to do.”
~from the text