April 19, 2013

The Humming Room: A Close-Up Review

"Hiding is Roo Fanshaw's special skill. Living in a frighteningly unstable family, she often needs to disappear at a moment's notice. When her parents are murdered, it's her special hiding place under the trailer that saves her life.

As it turns out, Roo, much to her surprise, has a wealthy if eccentric uncle, who has agreed to take her into his home on Cough Rock Island. Once a tuberculosis sanitarium for children of the rich, the strange house is teeming with ghost stories and secrets. Roo doesn't believe in ghosts or fairy stories, but what are those eerie noises she keeps hearing? And who is that strange wild boy who lives on the river? People are lying to her, and Roo becomes determined to find the truth.

Despite the best efforts of her uncle's assistants, Roo discovers the house's hidden room--a garden with a tragic secret.

Inspired by The Secret Garden, this tale full of unusual characters and mysterious secrets is a story that only Ellen Potter could write."
(from Goodreads)

The Humming Room by Ellen Potter

Premise: My ARC (and Goodreads' description) says that it's inspired by The Secret Garden. I'd like to take a moment to say: this book is more than "inspired" by that classic. This book is basically a retelling of The Secret Garden with the names and details changed. This was my number one problem with The Humming Room, because really — The Secret Garden is a classic for a reason. Sure, Ellen Potter has modernized the story a little, and yes, the behaviour of the character of Colin in the original has been given a more practical, plausible explanation. But apart from that, this book doesn't really add anything new to the story!

Characters: Be warned, I will be referring to The Secret Garden characters a lot (from my memory of the 1975 film version, though, to be perfectly honest).

Roo: She's a gritty character and I liked her, perhaps more than Mary from the original because Mary was selfish and bossy, and Roo isn't like that (she doesn't come from the privileged background Mary did). She does share other characteristics with Mary, though, like tenacity and curiosity. They're both sort of prickly with others, determined and stubborn, and know their own minds. Roo barely takes the point here, but since she's not all condescending like Mary, she does.

Jack: otherwise known as "The Faigne," he's obviously supposed to be Dickon's counterpart. He's a natural with animals, lives on the river, and doesn't really need the company of people (although he likes Roo). Jack's a cool guy, but Dickon wins this one, for being such a sweetheart. (It doesn't hurt that as a kid I thought the actor who played him was cute.)

Phillip: he's The Humming Room's take on Colin. He's pretty similar to Colin in terms of personality — a whiny, bossy child who feels sorry for himself. The biggest difference between them (and indeed, between the two novels) is that instead of being a physically disabled boy with a bad attitude, he is a depressed, grieving boy with a bad attitude. Making the character's challenges about mental illness and grief rather than a physical problem actually makes more sense given how The Secret Garden ends (spoiler for The Secret Garden, highlight to read: it was always a little far-fetched that the garden helped him walk again). Anyway, I liked him more than Colin because I didn't find him quite as irritating. Point goes to Phillip.

Violet: Cough Rock's equivalent of Martha, the maid from the moors. No contest here: I liked Martha better. To be fair, this might be partly because she had an awesome accent. But I didn't think Violet's personality shone, and it honestly doesn't feel like her role is that necessary. We also don't see much of a connection forming between her and Roo like we do in the original.

The squirrel: the requisite animal friend that helpfully leads the main character to the hidden garden. In Mary's case, it was a robin; in Roo's case, it is a black squirrel. I like robins and squirrels, so they cancel each other out. 


I don't think it'll come as a large surprise that The Humming Room follows a lot of the same plot points as The Secret Garden. Roo is an orphan, taken in by her uncle, who finds a secret garden (have I spoiled anything yet?). Really, I just don't see the point of, essentially, rewriting The Secret Garden without doing anything radically different with it. This is not even just a "loosely based on" sort of retelling. You can pretty much map out, plot point by plot point, how the storyline matches up with the original. If you don't know beforehand there's a connection to The Secret Garden, perhaps it isn't so obvious; I couldn't say because I knew going into it. At the start I didn't think it was so strongly reminiscent of the classic, but the parallels become blatantly obvious midway through. You couldn't really get much closer to the original if you tried.

Ellen Potter does handle Roo's character transformation well here. It's really brought home towards the end — how much more lively and open she is with people, rather than being closed-off and withdrawn, trusting only herself, as she was at the beginning. She's become much more motivated and optimistic, embracing the world, and that was a wonderful change to see.

The ending seemed a little bittersweet to me, ultimately happy but with a revelation containing a sad irony (which is in keeping with the original). There's also arguably a very slight magical realism element involved, but I think it works within the context of the story. Cough Rock has a certain sort of mystical charm to it, after all, where you believe miracles can happen. I think the end was missing a much-needed father-son discussion, however. We never get to see them spilling their emotional guts out to each other, for the sake of some closure.

Writing style: The writing is, for the most part, one of the marks in the book's favour. Some of the descriptions are quite picturesque, giving the reader a good visual and sense of the atmosphere without lapsing into purple prose or becoming too detailed. The garden sounds really beautiful and I'd love to hang out there (spoiler: minus the creepy spider, of course).

However, sometimes there's a weird POV switch that happens. We're getting it 3rd-person attached to Roo, and then all of a sudden it will sort of abruptly "head-hop" to someone else, right in the middle of a scene. I found it a little awkward and jarring at times.

Final verdict: 3 shooting stars. Certainly, the storyline is decent...we know that already because it's been done before! I'm just not sure why anyone would pick up The Humming Room and prefer it to The Secret Garden, except perhaps for the fact that the language is likely more accessible to young readers nowadays, since it wasn't written in the 1900s. It's not a bad book in and of itself, but it shouldn't have been marketed as anything but a retelling — and even as that, it's not exceptional.

Disclaimer: I received an ARC from the publisher for review.

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