The White Tower - Cathryn Constable


Chicken House Books
Publication Date: 05.01.2017
ISBN: 9781909489103
Number of pages: 251

'This is called the Court of Sentinels,' the girl explained. 'No prizes for guessing why.' She raised her eyebrows to the roof.
Livy had the powerful sensation that she wanted to be up on the roof and away from the anxiety of the day. Up there, she felt, she could rest her head on a cloud, stretch out as if she were still in bed and, somehow, if she concentrated hard enough to hold on to her voice, talk to Mahalia. 

The White Tower, Cathryn Constable. P55. 

Since Livy’s friend Mahalia died earlier in the summer, everybody around Livy has worked hard to make life feel as ‘normal’ as possible. But how can life be normal when the impossible has happened? Livy knows she is supposed to feel sad, but is it normal to feel weightless? What helps Livy most is family routine, especially the company of her little brother Tom. The last things she wants is to move house and change schools, but her father’s new job as librarian of Temple College comes with a house and a scholarship place for Livy. Her parents mean well, but they seem to think Livy needs a fresh start.

Temple College is a strange place, founded on the conflicting principles of alchemy and science. It has a library filled with the notes of past students who went on to become eminent scientists. It also has stained glass windows which depict boys on the verge of flight, and sentinels on the roof who are supposed to represent the original ‘poor boys’ educated by the school’s founder.

Both the headmistress and the ex-librarian seem interested in Livy’s possible connection to the founder, Peter Burgess. Ex-librarian Mr Hopkins remains in close proximity to the school, despite being banned from the site. He appears concerned with the welfare of Livy and her brother Tom. headmistress Dr Smythe takes an unusual interest in Tom. She also makes it clear that Dad’s job hinges upon him finding the missing papers of Peter Burgess in the school’s extensive library …

 Livy’s development is interesting. At first she is defined more by Mahalia. Without her friend, she appears to be at a bit of a loss as to who she is herself. I like the fact that as well as making new friends, she finds something else to define herself by. The exploration of grief is touching. The idea of flight and weightlessness work well to illustrate the strange physical sensations associated with grief. It is also metaphoric of the way the people we love keep us grounded and guide us through the worst the world can throw at us. As somebody who lost a friend last autumn, I relate to the way seemingly small things present the loss to Livy from a new angle. For example, she does not want a new mobile phone because Mahalia’s contact details are on the old one.

The story reminded me of older authors such as Penelope Lively, who also wrote mysteries whose answers were rooted in the history of the setting. I enjoyed both the fantasy and the story of Livy’s everyday life, but thought both ended abruptly. This too was slightly old-fashioned, in the sense that most of the resolution seemed to centre on the ‘unmasking’. Although it is nice to see a strong stand-alone novel, by the time we reached this point in the fantasy I thought the story had been set up for a trilogy, and was quite surprised by the sudden ending.

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