Title: Close Your Pretty Eyes
Author: Sally Nicholls
Genre: Middle Grade Horror
Summary (from Goodreads)
Eleven-year-old Olivia has been in care since she was five, and is just beginning her nineteenth placement. Her new home is a secluded farmhouse, centuries old, where she slowly bonds with her foster family. But the house holds dark secrets. Olivia discovers that it was once a notorious baby farm, where unwanted children were left to die. She becomes convinced that the place is haunted. She is desperate to save her new family from the ghosts. The danger is real – but does it come from the twisted mind of a very disturbed child?
I didn’t set out to read this one in order to review it. It’s a book I was given as a gift over a year ago now which, somewhat shamefully, I hadn’t got round to reading yet. So I bumped it up the TBR pile, thinking it would be a quick, fun read. Something I could read for pleasure without knowing I would be sitting down at the end of it, trying to put my thoughts about it into words.
I knew from about the third chapter that I would have to review it. Because if even one person considers picking this one up because of my review, it would be completely worth it.
What looks like a typical Middle Grade horror story, is actually a horror story because of more than just its ghost. It’s about the horror of people, and the things they do to each other, particularly what adults do to their children.
Olivia is a damaged, frightened girl who lives in a state of constant hyper vigilance. While she calls this her ‘superpower’ you start to realise that it’s not super heroics that have made her senses so sharp – it’s that she lives in anticipation of the next person hurting her, physically or emotionally. Her bids to control the other people around her make her a downright unlikable character at times. But at the same time, you completely understand the roots of her actions, the reasons she behaves the way she does. And though you wish for her to just change, just a little bit, to make things easier for herself, you can’t help but think you’d probably behave the same way in her situation.
I like that the ‘truth’ of the ghost is kept ambiguous. Yes, there’s some resolution to the person behind the ghost, but it’s never explicitly stated if the ‘ghost’ that Olivia experiences is an actual phantom, or just the imaginings of her fractured mind – her fears personified as a grisly Victorian woman who murdered children. I like it most of all because in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Maybe it’s a ghost influencing Olivia, or maybe it’s just who she is. Either way, the outcomes of her behaviours don’t change. She’s no less culpable for her actions.
Nicholls mentions in her Afterword that she spent a lot of time researching how children in Olivia’s situation – abused by their families, then shunted from home to home, no one able to take care of such a damaged child – behave. It’s very clear from the writing, and from Olivia’s characterisation, that the research paid off. There’s not a false note in the entire story, and despite the fact that Olivia is unlikable, you can’t help but root for her, feel for her, and love her a little bit. Stunning writing, excellent story, and a challenging, but eye opening exploration of the terrible effects of childhood trauma. Highly recommended to everyone.