Cecilia Cross has always felt a strong tie to Winship Island and, in particular, to her home Sanctuary. Despite the horrors that have happened to her family in the house – the death of her sister and grandmother, the commitment of her mother to a psychiatric hospital – Cecilia feels that it is a part of her. Following the death of her aunt, Cecilia returns to her home but finds that things are not as they were when she left. Her uncle owns the property and has become a cruel, spiteful man who bullies everyone in his wake and has his wrath has focused on Cecilia. Cecilia takes solace in the island and in an English professor who is evaluating the library for purchase by the school. Soon, however, Cecilia starts to see things – protective fireflies and the face of the woman who first lived in Sanctuary, Amoret. Cecilia is unsure if what she is seeing is real or if she is starting down a path to madness like her mother but knows that she must solve the mysteries of the island before it’s too late for her to escape.
Sanctuary, by author Jennifer McKissack, is a stellar Young Adult gothic novel. The book is reminiscent of Rebecca or The Turn of the Screw in it’s mysterious, ominous, and romantic style. The book takes over the reader the instant they read the first sentence and it draws them into the world of Sanctuary. Sanctuary is it’s own distinct character in the novel and is in equal parts inviting or foreboding, depending on its whim. The reader can understand Cecilia’s love for it and her desire to be independent from it as well. Cecilia is an intriguing heroine – she is quiet and reserved yet with a lively inner life she shares with few. The supporting characters are all well written and serve a purpose – there are no fillers in this book. The character of Eli, the handsome professor, is notable for his earnestness mixed with secrecy. Her uncle is a character of rage and his presence feels large when he is on the page.
The story unfolds gradually, as if it’s reluctant to let go of its secrets. It allows the reader time to soak up the story and the setting before pushing forward. Sanctuary is not a novel to be rushed but rather one to luxuriate in and spend time with. It’s a stunning debut by Jennifer McKissack that is hopefully just the start of things to come.
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