Elizabeth and Zenobia, by Jessica Miller
MIDDLE GRADE GOTHIC FANTASY!
Ahem. Let's take a look.
This passage from the first chapter of Elizabeth and Zenobia says a whole lot about who our narrator is, and about how she sees herself and her place in the world:
Our train arrived. The waiting passengers became a surging crowd that elbowed and pushed and waved tickets in the air. Still no Father. Maybe he had gone and left me behind, just as Mother had done.
But then I saw the black hat and, underneath it, Father coming along the platform. His eyes slid over me, and he walked straight by. I wasn't surprised. I am small and quiet, the kind of girl it is easy to walk past without seeing.
Shortly after her mother runs off with an opera singer—she was nice enough to send a note twelve days later to let them know that she wouldn't be returning—Elizabeth's father decides to relocate himself and his daughter to his childhood home, Witheringe House.
But what about Zenobia, right? Well. Zenobia is Elizabeth's imaginary friend.
Except... well, I'll let Elizabeth explain:
Zenobia is not imaginary at all. It is true no one except me can see her or hear her, but that doesn't mean I dreamed her up. Besides, as she so often likes to point out, it's unlikely that someone as dull or as timid as I could ever imagine someone like Zenobia.
And the text backs Elizabeth up on that—in other words, it's clear that Zenobia is real, even if no one else can see her:
At the next station, the door to our compartment opened and two girls came in. One tall, one small, and both in school uniform. The small one took the seat by Father, and the tall one, before I could stop her, sat squarely on Zenobia. Almost immediately, she sprang up again. Her face was pale and her teeth chattered. She folded her arms tightly around herself.
"What's the matter this time, Cecilia?" Annoyance flickered over the small girl's face.
"The cold," said Cecilia. "Didn't you feel it?"
Shortly after they settle in at Witheringe House, the girls discover that not only is there a ton to explore—including a whole wing that Elizabeth's father has deemed OFF LIMITS, a hedge maze, and secret doors galore!—the house ALSO has a Tragic History. Namely, that Elizabeth's father's beloved younger sister, Tourmaline, disappeared when she was only seven years old. She's assumed dead—there's a gravestone and everything—but her body was never recovered.
The more she explores and learns and thinks and observes, Elizabeth begins to suspect that Tourmaline isn't dead—she's trapped.
And she's in grave danger.
Elizabeth and Zenobia is about friendship and loyalty; about holding fast to the truth even when people roll their eyes; about how adults so often dismiss children; about loss and abandonment and fear of our own insignificance; about bravery in the face of fear.
It's a friendship story that understands that even the strongest friendships have growing pains—it acknowledges that when friends develop divergent interests and beliefs, there will be clashes, but it shows how that doesn't mean the friendship has to end.
Also? It's really, really, REALLY funny. There's a running gag about how jealous Zenobia is of the housekeeper's Stealth Skills, and the conversations—and bickering—between the girls are a pure joy to read:
"Well"—she tamped the last of the soil around the death-cap stems and brushed dirt crumbs from her fingers—"retrospectively, I may have overreacted to your going off like that, and I'm . . ." She paused for an uncomfortably long time.
"I'm . . . I'm regretful."
"I'm penitent. I'm contrite. I'm—"
"Zenobia, are you trying to tell me you're sorry, too?"
"If that's how you want to interpret it, I can't stop you. Now, tell me, what have you found out? Is it something very gruesome?"
Elizabeth is like a Victorian Era Yoko from Raised by Wolves—if you haven't watched it, do—and Zenobia is like... I don't even know. A Victorian Era Super-Goth?
She bounces from interest to interest—from anatomy to fortune-telling to clairvoyance to DEADLY POISON—she collects dust from the wings of dead moths and has bird skulls rattling around in her pockets, she wears raggedy black dresses all the time and complains if it's remotely sunny, and she's horrified by the very idea of children's games like tea parties and leapfrog. Basically, she's as goth as goth can be, and I adore her.
I adore them both.