After reading all the reviews and posts during Anbolyn’s recent Mary Stewart Reading Week, I had almost decided that the next Stewart books I read would be her Merlin series, but instead I found myself picking up this one from the library shelf.
Thornyhold starts off differently from the other Mary Stewart books I’ve read. Instead of getting straight into the action, our narrator, Geillis (Gilly) Ramsey, spends the first few chapters looking back on her childhood. As the daughter of a vicar and his cold, distant wife, bullied at school and feeling lonely and isolated, it was not a very happy childhood for Gilly and the one bright spot in her life was her relationship with her mother’s cousin, another Geillis.
Several years go by and both of Gilly’s parents die, leaving her an orphan in her early twenties. Just as she’s wondering what to do with her life, she hears that Geillis has also died, leaving her cottage in the countryside to Gilly. The name of the cottage is Thornyhold and it comes complete with an overgrown garden, a black cat called Hodge and a collection of dusty books of magic spells and herbal remedies. Could Gilly’s cousin Geillis have been a witch? With the help of William, a ten-year-old boy who shares her love of nature, Gilly begins to uncover some of the secrets of Thornyhold.
Thornyhold is one of Mary Stewart’s most recent books, published in 1988 (only Stormy Petrel and Rose Cottage came after that) and I’ve found that these final three books have a different feel from her earlier ones, being a lot gentler with less of the suspense and adventure that are usually associated with her work. In this book, although there are a few mysteries for Gilly to solve and one or two people who try to cause trouble for her (including the housekeeper Agnes Trapp, who seems desperate to get her hands on one of cousin Geillis’ herbology books), I never felt that I needed to worry about Gilly or that there was any danger of there not being a happy ending. But while I do prefer the more exciting, suspenseful books such as Nine Coaches Waiting and The Moonspinners, I enjoyed this one too, for different reasons.
This book may not have the exotic setting that many of her others have, but that doesn’t mean the descriptions aren’t still beautiful. It was a pleasure to watch Gilly exploring her new home, settling into the cottage and discovering the natural beauty of her surroundings. The story is set in the 1940s and has a lovely nostalgic feel with references to rationing and other details of post-war life. I also liked the characters, especially Gilly herself, who blossoms from a lonely child into a confident young woman with a lot to offer in terms of friendship and love (yes, there’s a love story too). Although this hasn’t become a favourite Stewart novel, it was a nice, relaxing read with a magical atmosphere and just what I was in the mood for!