A story that features one of the most despicable collections of adults I've read; that says a lot in a genre (YA) where adults are usually asshats.
It's the height of World War II. The Germans are merrily bombing the crap out of England. But Abigail Cobble, an orphan, has bigger problems. Having spent most of the last few years being bounced from one orphanage to another, she is on her way to a new home, St. Winnifred's. St. Winnifred's is an orphanage of last resort where really incorrigible children are sent to be abused by nuns. Because nothing says, "God loves you," like being beaten bloody.
There's a method to Abigail's madness, though. St. Winnifred's is located in the same village where Abigail's sister, Tabitha, lives with her adopted family. For reasons that are explain as the story progresses, Tabitha was adopted by their aunt Theodora, while Abigail was not. Abigail has in her possession two lockets, one for her, one for Tabitha, that must be worn by each when they turn sixteen. Abigail and Tabitha are Cobbles, twins who are the embodiment of good and evil, and their magical jewelry is apparently essential to maintaining the balance between good and evil.
And their birthday is a just a few months away.
Abigail's new home, however, is inhabited by a boogieman known as The Bagman. A shadowy figure, The Bagman lives off people's fears and misery, and sometimes helps the nuns by administering punishment. Again, nice nuns--not. Initially, Abigail, thinks The Bagman is nothing more than myth, but when he shows himself and steals the lockets, she is forced to make a deal with the devil as it were.
He grants her seven wishes, with various stipulations and fine print, all written in his favor. The outcome of each wish will be judged, with either Abigail or The Bagman being the victor. At the culmination of a week of wishes, the one with the most wins...wins.
This is the sort of story that defies rating. Reading was a pleasure, but there was a peculiar sense of dissonance in the tone as well as a lack of internal consistency that felt like a stone in my shoe. Not big enough to hurt or cause a blister, but just enough to always distract.
First, the tone. Abigail is fifteen. She's been shuffled from one orphanage to another in a system that clearly doesn't expend much effort on niceties like kindness. She's bold enough to misbehave in order to achieve her goal. Despite that, she lacks much edge, and her reasoning follows that of a younger girl, someone eleven, twelve, at best. Though decisive, she's often wracked with unnecessary, slightly maudlin guilt. She makes decisions with a kind of single-mindedness that feels almost obsessive and at times, left me cold.
My other quibble lies in the manner in which the cruelty of the world is sanitized. One might gather, from the narrative's approach, that nuns abusing children to the point of crippling was very common place, de rigueur in this world, so why bother making much of it? This is probably a function of the novel's style, which is meant to mimic an older storytelling approach where stuff like cruelty is no big deal.
Except to my modern sensibilities, it is a big deal. I mean, one of the nuns literally shoved one of the children down a flight of stairs, breaking his legs and then denying him adequate health care, resulting in him being permanently disabled. And yet, the supposed good nun, Sister Kate, is devoted to St. Winnifred's and does nothing to temper the violent inclinations of Sister Bruga and others.
Sister Kate, of course, turns out to be an asshole in her own right (and too-stupid-to-live), so perhaps that's the point. But my complaint is that the story (and technically, the narrator) never seems to take a position on all this. Child abuse is wrong. The reader doesn't need to be told that ('least, I hope not). But usually, there's an underlying sense that the storyteller knows this too, that at least some judgement is laid on the villains. Here, it's like all the attention is focused on the toddler who burned down the house, all while ignoring the parents who left her alone with only matches as toys.
My guess is that the story's theme may actually be that humans do far worse to each other than the likes to The Bagman, but it gets sort of lost in the non-judgmental, simplistic depiction of the nuns.
Instead, there's a point where Sister Kate lectures Abigail, telling her that everything that has gone wrong is Abigail's fault, all caused by her selfishness. And I was like, "Whoa, she's a fifteen-year-old kid trapped in an abusive system, and labelled 'the evil twin.' If anything, you, the adult, are to blame."
Again, I reckon this is the point. Abigail is a child cast adrift in the Sea of Suck It Up Because Nobody Gives a Shit. But the underlying darkness of themes jars against the almost sweet, childlike tone of the novel's voice.
On that note, The Bagman might make a delightful read-aloud story for younger children who aren't afraid of a few scares. Especially since younger readers aren't likely to dissect the storyline as this fussy adult did