From the beginning of this story, Sylvie, Grace Reynolds’ impressionable four-year-old daughter “with her daisy dungarees, her wispy pale hair, and her heart-shaped face,” has a coldness of gaze that just can’t be explained. Even as Sylvie is haunted by images of a white house and a cave and a dragon, it is at a party for Lennie, Sylvie’s best friend, where suddenly and unexpectedly there is a terrible commotion. Water is everywhere and dear little Sylvie is screaming, her brittle body wracked with tension and heartache.
Yet again Grace has a curling sense of dread, forced
to apologize to her hesitant girlfriend Karen, who has up until now welcomed her into her life. Embarrassed and appalled, Grace flees with Sylvie from Karen’s “ordered universe,” her world of the tidy house where everything matches and fits. Sylvie’s outbursts, her sadness, crying, and strange phobia of water
are mysterious at best. More puzzling is a house that she draws over and over with a blue border, the doors and windows always just the same.
There’s a constant sense that something about Sylvie is utterly beyond Grace. Dominic, Sylvie’s father, is gone from the scene, unwilling to acknowledge his infant daughter, more concerned with the welfare of his own family than Grace, whom he accidentally got pregnant when she was only eighteen. While Dominic continues to “dance at the margins of her mind,” Grace goes home to her cold flat in central London. Her days are spent working in a flower shop with her compassionate boss, Lavinia, her “willow wands and patchwork scraps of fabric” gently reaffirming to Grace that as her mother only she knows what’s right for Sylvie.
But Grace is desperate. Sylvie’s outbursts are multiplying this sense of restriction, of walls that press in whichever way Grace turns.
There’s the surging frustration, the sense of this life unfolding before her, an unraveling of everything she’s tried to knit together
- “The patching up and making do.”
Grace realizes that she has to do something when the stern and distant Mrs. Pace-Barden, the manager of the local nursery school, tells Grace the staff just can’t control Sylvie’s temper tantrums. Surprisingly, an answer comes in the form of a newspaper article, with stories of ghosts and Dr. Adam Winters, who investigates the spiritual link between past lives and psychic phenomenon
and haunted by an accident that caused the death of his brother.
As Grace finally recounts a sad confession to Adam - “it’s like Sylvie’s slipping away from me. It’s like she doesn’t see me or recognize me”
- they are compelled to travel with Sylvie to the small seaside Irish village of Coldharbour to look for answers and perhaps a hint of meaning. Adam wants to find a way of living with his brother’s death, while Grace tries find a measure of comfort among the townsfolk
along with some sort of explanation for her daughter’s extraordinary visions. While Sylvie seems to elude Grace,
the girl’s almost spiritual connection to the sudden disappearance of Alice Murphy and her daughter Jessica tie the threads of this multi-layered plot together.
Leroy’s mellifluous prose perfectly captures the downhearted struggles of Grace and the deep interiors of Sylvie’s mind, which in turn burn at the heart of this melancholy mystery. The author plunges us from the dark days of London with its raw, searching wind, “its smells of smoke and petrol fumes,” on to the vast landscapes of Coldharbour with
its lobster boats, “the salt wind and the jetty, the sense of space.” Grace pours out all of her
pent-up frustrations and Sylvie her accumulated emotions, the shattered perceptions of a past life, in language so evocative that so much air, all the vastness of the place, the sky, and the sea, become transcendent and life appears tenuous at best.