I’m still reading aloud to my 12-year-old daughter. But the progression from Good Night, Moon to novel-length adventures has not been seamless. These days we dissect the books as we read. It’s harder to get caught up in a story and return to it the next night, especially if Project Runway or some similarly delicious, anti-intellectual pleasure beckons.
A. J. Hartley’s Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact proved that rare bird which kept an almost-teenager and her mother reading feverishly, even though the main character is not female (from my daughter’s point of view, a strike against him). We became obsessed by Darwen’s adventures, as he encounters horrors that range from American private school kids to monsters from other worlds who intrude, inconveniently into our own.
Darwen is a British boy, uprooted from a town in Northern England and sent to Atlanta, Georgia to live with his Aunt Honoria (“tall and slim, with a mouth so thin it might have been drawn on with a pencil”). This transition works about as well as you can imagine. Darwen is dumbfounded and grief-stricken. His aunt works long hours as an investment banker, and her sympathy takes the form of offering a teabag dunked in tepid water, or as Darwen describes it, “a nice warmish cup of floating mouse.”
Aunt Honoria’s parenting plan, as it turns out, involves shoving Darwen into an expensive, exclusive private school. I happen to love the whole paranormal private school genre, and this is a fantastic entry. Hillside Academy is a weird and terrifying place, and Darwen, who turns out to have strange abilities having to do with mirrors, forms an odd group of friends who don’t fit in with the sleekly dangerous, rich Southern boys who dominate the school.
Post Harry Potter, we can all sketch the outlines of a paranormal private school novel. Darwen Arkwright is a far odder and more creative addition to the genre than I have read in years. Darwen has powers of a sort…but he also has the ability to behave like a bumbler, like a dunce, like a grieving boy. The book never relies on paranormal flourishes alone to carry the reader’s interest. A. J. Hartley shows an uncanny, brilliant ability to shape the inner life of an unmoored child, who realizes that the worst thing of all is that there’s no one to be disappointed in him.
Darwen Arkwright led to conversations in which I announced it was too late to read tonight, and a young lady who talks mostly of Justin Bieber begged and pleaded that I would read just a few pages while she brushed her teeth. If you have a blossoming reader in your circle, do not overlook this book!