White Crow is about man’s obsession with death and the afterlife, and follows the parallel obsessions of two groups of people, one living in the eighteenth century, the other in the twenty-first.
Within the first page, we are introduced to the typical teenage protagonist that haunts the ‘modern gothic thriller’ genre. Young, beautiful and emotionally hurt, Rebecca is a sixteen-year-old Londoner, uprooted and wrenched away from her old life after her ex-policeman father’s reputation is blackened. Hiding away, Rebecca finds herself in the ominously named Winterfold; a town that is slowly being eroded by the sea. Here she meets the abnormal girl, Ferelith, with whom she begins a strange friendship.
The setting is right, the characters are a perfect mix of normality and the mysterious. And, yes, White Crow is nothing if not well presented. Why then did I struggle so much with it?
It seems to me that Sedgwick has almost over-cultivated the novel. The complex structure and references give it a sort of clinical feel, as though he has followed the recipe to a good gothic thriller whilst forgetting the crucial ingredient of emotion. Indeed, the three narrators, approaching the story from different angles and even different centuries, serve more to fragment the story than focus it, making it difficult to form an on-going attachment with any one character.
The message of the novel is drummed into the reader repeatedly, rather than gently hinted at, so that it gradually loses its impact. Subtle hinting at a theme or message would be far more effective than making it transparent, which Sedgwick’s constant repetition of philosopher William James’s White Crow quote seems to do. In my view, Sedgwick’s fatal mistake is to dumb down the book simply because it is not for the adult market, and what a mistake that is.