Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Humming Room by Ellen Potter

It's hard to review The Humming Room by Ellen Potter without including something that some might consider a spoiler, so I'll say at the start: if you like juvenile fiction with just a touch of magical realism, with well-developed characters and a little bit of eerie atmosphere, you might want to stop reading this review, and pick up the book, instead. Okay, now for the actual review:

When Roo's parents are killed, she is sent to the home of an uncle she didn't even know she had. The huge, mysterious old house holds many secrets, both inside and out. There's the strange boy who knows more about nature than anyone Roo has ever met, the unwelcoming housekeeper, the garrulous maid, and the strange humming and crying sounds that Roo sometimes hears as she explores the house. Most of all, there's the garden, which has been closed up and left to die. . . .

If this is all sounding way too familiar, there's a reason for that. Potter has taken the basic structure of The Secret Garden and updated it to a modern setting. This may sound like a recipe for disaster, but in this case, it works beautifully. It took me a little while to even realize what was happening, though when I look back, I can see that Roo's story and Mary's march side-by-side from the very beginning. Lots of the small details differ, making the book just different enough from its predecessor that it doesn't feel like a hollow imitation. For instance, Roo's uncle's house is an old children's tuberculosis sanatorium, with all of the creepiness that entails, and it's located on an island, so it feels as remote as a house on the moors of Yorkshire a hundred years ago. There are subtle differences in characterization, too -- Roo is a little more likeable than Mary, Jack is a little more fey than Dickon, Philip is not as much of an invalid as Colin -- but they mesh together nicely. My one complaint was that the book was short, and felt a little rushed toward the end.

In The Humming Room, Potter has done a lovely job of taking on and adapting a children's classic. I would recommend this to fans of the original, as well as those who are looking for a story with a slightly spooky atmosphere and a hint of mystery.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

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