The Turnaway Girls is something quite different in the world of Middle grade fantasy, an intensely lyrical first person present tense narrative of heartbreaking longing juxtaposed with the fear of punishment for acting on said desires. A mature and poetic yet accessible consideration of the inner emotional price it takes to be safe or to be free in a world where you feel you don’t really belong.
This is a song of the soul my younger self would have ached to read.
On a sea battered island deep in a cloister of stone, twelve year old Delphernia Undersea is a turnaway girl unlike others as she has a song on her lips and a questioning mind but she is unable to spin sound into gold.
She thrums with the wonder of music and is doomed to a silent eternity behind walls with the other turnaway girls unless she is chosen by a Master at the Festival of Bells.
But girls with singing throats are doomed to be swallowed by the sea as Mother Nine warns Delphernia constantly of her failings reminding her of how she is like the cursed one taken by the sea.
On the day of the Festival of Bells, Delphernia is lifted from the cloister to a world spun from lies, unlike and more treacherous than anything she has imagined.
Girls with singing throats are swallowed by the sea.
Themes of awakening individualism, feminism, questioning patriarchy and class and the inner conflict of being true to oneself in the face of challenge are explored in this stunningly beautiful salt speckled novel.
The experiences of a range of femininity, privilege and the trappings of power or lack of it are explored through the novel. Delphernia wrestles with a self-loathing pummelled into her like waves upon rocks for being different to social expectations and the value of women in society is constantly fluttered back with allusions to the silent compliance of the turnaway girls trapped forever to spin gold for their masters.
Here they are the instruments of my closed world. mother Nine’s click click clicking on uneven cobbles. The othergirls’ breathing, harmonious as flutes. The thrashing call of the sea and the lifting chords of the cloisterwings’ choir. The slice soar of their wings through a thick breath of mist.
Those who enjoy the immersive poetic writing style of Kiran Millwood Hargrave will love Hayley Chewins who is a published poet in her own right.
The use of present tense adds a tense tone to the writing, and has a loose feel like a stream of consciousness as we experience happenings as Delphernia does herself. Indeed, without the security blanket of the past tense we are kept on our toes as to the outcome and whether Delphernia is doomed to be swallowed by the sea like the Sea Singer before her.
I adored it, and to be honest despite the adage and Mary Poppins returns song I was sold by the gorgeous cover by Sarah J Coleman with its golden swirling accents and bright shining moon, the promises on the cover are certainly fulfilled within.
The Turnaway Girls by Hayley Chewins is published by Walker Books and available from good bookshops and online.