Blurb: A picture paints a thousand lies…
Romilly lives in a ramshackle house with her eccentric artist father and her cat, Monty. She knows little about her past – but she knows that she is loved.
When her father finds fame with a series of children’s books starring her as the main character, everything changes: exotic foods appear on the table, her father appears on TV, and strangers appear at their door, convinced the books contain a treasure hunt leading to a glittering prize.
But as time passes, Romilly’s father becomes increasingly suspicious of everything around him, until, before her eyes, he begins to disappear altogether.
In her increasingly isolated world, Romilly turns to the secrets her father has hidden in his illustrated books, realising that there is something far darker and more devastating locked within the pages…
Everyone knows Romilly Kemp – she’s the girl in the picture books, with the kitten and the hidden treasure. But which Romilly Kemp is the real one? The one her dad has pinned to the pages? The naughty wild child her mother seems to fear? The meek follower who obeys her friend and idol? Or the secret inner Romilly, who notices every little thing and likes oddities and strangeness, collecting sensations – good and bad – like seashells.
In The Illustrated Child, Polly Kemp begins by splashing through the little mysteries and fairytale wonder of a somewhat neglected childhood, then wades into deeper, darker waters. There is something of a sinister feeling lurking behind the bright surface from the very start: the wild house, her father’s private study and shadow woman; the mysterious absence of Romilly’s mother; stuffed parrots and kitten paws. Everything combines to create a vague but constant ominous pressure, on characters and reader alike.
Still, I was thoroughly enjoying the story, right up until the point where Romilly’s father changes and everything begins to go very wrong, with any semblance of fairytales and rainbows abandoned. The book spirals into a surreal and disturbing dive into dementia, depression, delusions and overt abuse. It really is quite bleak reading at times. Personally, I am fond of dark and light stories alike, but felt that this one buried the lede a bit. I was led to believe I was reading a story about family secrets, children’s books and hidden treasures, which turned out to be more focused on child neglect and abuse and mental illness.
There are some big identity questions explored here, through the eyes of a troubled child. Who are we? What, or who, defines us: love? Our relationships with others? Our inner worlds? Romilly doesn’t really have any answers for the reader here, other than the insight that not all that is hidden turns out to be treasure.
Those seeking a whimsical, fairytale story about a girl growing up a legend may find this gets a little too darkly real, but anyone looking for a beautifully written story about the darker side of growing up known but neglected will enjoy this debut.
You probably know me: I’m the Kemp Treasure Girl. Maybe you had the books as a child. Perhaps your dad read them to you in those wilting hours of sleep where books become dreams and dreams become books. Did you look for the treasure, digging in your garden, unsure of what you were searching for?
Mine was an unusual infamy for one so young. Not an all-encompassing, celebrity fame, but one that flattened me into two dimensions and picked out the colour of my eyes and my dress. One that stopped people in the street and made their necks crane back round to gaze at me.– Polly Crosby, The Illustrated Child
The Illustrated Child is available on Amazon right now.