Devilskein & Dearlove is a whimsical and slightly dark take on the classic The Secret Garden (a book I have always loved, so this was great fun for me.) It is a book of hearts and keys and lies and sacrifices, set in the wonderfully prosaic (a block of flats in Long Street, Cape Town) and the wonderfully metaphysical (A labyrinth of bartered souls.)
Erin Dearlove is an orphan who is blocking out the horror of her family’s death with an intricate fantasy history, and a cold and bitter demeanour. Sent to live with her Aunt Kate in an apartment in Van Riebeek Heights, she is constantly sneering at the apparent poverty and the people who live there, comparing it unflatteringly with her “previous” life in a mansion with staircases of glass, with peacocks roaming the grounds. She rebuffs the friendliness of fellow teen Kelwyn Talmakies and is isolated even from her aunt, who doesn’t know how to help her.
Miserable and antisocial and damaged, she meets a person even more so than herself – The Companyman Mr. Devilskein, who keeps a fantastical secret in apartment 6616. Devilskein has lived for hundreds of years, bartering the souls of people desperate for fame or love or genius, and making it so that they can never reclaim those souls, trapping them in his interconnecting worlds behind a series of doors called The Indeterminate Vault; the keys all unmarked and muddled. In Erin and Kelwyn, Devilskein sees a chance at immortality – he will take the children’s hearts to replace his own failing one.
But there are other factors at play – the cricket Zhou who guides Erin through the fantastical world, and a shadow boy called Julius Monk, trapped in the Haga; a doorless,
windowless prison. Both play Erin for their own purposes – capturing her with friendship real and false. Zhou guides Erin to a Chinese garden behind a turquoise door, and there, is where Erin begins to grow back her lost self, by caring for a garden that was salted with tears, and bringing it back to life. The book is layered with this kind of delightful metaphor, and deep readers will get a lot from the shadings that writer Alex Smith uses to deepen the narrative.
Through the story, Erin changes from the sour, lost teenager who invented a fantasy past, to one who is powerful, artistic, and brave, one who will be able to finally face the horror of her parents’ and brother’s murders, and see real magic. She is fooled by false friendships and rejects true ones, but it will take these actions for her to change her world, and be able to free lost souls, and save a city.
The story has magical charm, embroidered with sensory details, and is a lovely and strange little book. The characters are all very different, though I would say the one thing that I found jarring was that sometimes the ages of the teen characters were hard to place. I knew they were teens, but often they read younger than that, which may also be down to trying to capture a little of the spirit of the source material.
Published by Umuzi Press, so although the book is available in South Africa, overseas readers will probably have to go through Amazon to get a copy.