1 March 2022

#Review - Gallant by VE Schwab

VE Schwab
Titan Books, 1 March 2022
Available as: HB, 320pp
Source: Advance copy
ISBN: 9781785658686

I was very excited to see this new standalone novel from VE Schwab was coming, and so very honoured and grateful to the publisher to received an advance copy of Gallant to consider for review, which I sat down and read in a day, its just THAT good.

How can I sum up Gallant

Reaching for comparisons, Dickens inevitably came to mind. Imagine Oliver Twist being sent from his workhouse to Wuthering Heights - only dialled up to twelve. Rather than Oliver we have Olivia Prior, an orphan sixteen years old who has lived most of that time at Merilance School for Girls. Merilance is a pinched, cold, grudging institution that brings up its charges to have expectations low in all respects, save for years of grinding service. For Olivia, the School is doubly limiting: she's non-verbal, and the other girls use this as a reason to freeze her out. They are at least scared of her, after the way she responded to bullying, but it's a very lonely existence with little love from the school's "Matrons".

Olivia's companions, therefore, seem mainly to comprise the "ghouls" that she encounters around the school. Possibly revenants of dead pupils and teachers - and oh, how many tragic deaths they seem to represent - these seem harmless creatures, quietly haunting particular spots. Schwab is deliberately vague about whether the ghouls are somehow special to Olivia, or whether they might be a wider phenomenon in this world (though it seems at least that nobody else at the school is aware of them).

Against this bleak background, it comes as a relief when Olivia learns that the "Gallant" mentioned in the diary that is her only inheritance form her dead mother is, in fact, her ancestral home; that she has living relatives there; has been called for - and is to leave Merilance. She does, though, reflect that she's been told in that same diary to stay away from Gallant, for her own safety...

In this opening part of the story, Schwab sets up an intriguing situation. Olivia is a fascinating hero, one who's had to become strong, at least outwardly. Blissfully (perhaps) she never dreams (what dreams might come?) but she certainly hurts. Her strength is despite some deep wounds - her isolation, the loss of her parents - not from lack of them. She'll need all that strength and more in the second part of the novel, when she travels to Gallant and isn't welcomed exactly as she had hoped.

Gallant - what is Gallant? Well, I'll not say too much as I don't want to spoil this book, but I can fairly say that Gallant is the Gothic mansion of all my dreams. Here you'll find a remote house in the mountains (as elsewhere in the story, Schwab is vague about the exact location). While Olivia seems, on her mother's side, to be part of a wealthy family, there's an air of decay or at least abandonment to much of Gallant, as though it was built to contain far more than her, her cousin Matthew and aged retainers Hannah and Edgar. And when I say "more" I don't necessarily mean, more family members. The place, as described, had for me a sense of unrealised potential, as though it could be more, host more possibilities, more goings-on, than Olivia finds. Imagine a decayed fortress still standing on the borderlands, stocked with weapons and supplies, but overlaid with dust and disuse. There's a sense of entrapment. For all the visits by the butcher's van, we see little of any outsiders - the driver who takes Olivia to Gallant just drops her outside and makes off again as quickly as he can. Clearly there are mysteries at Gallant; reasons that Olivia is forbidden from leaving the house in the dark; connected, perhaps, to her mother and what seems to be the tragic life she lived and lost.

And, of course, the mysteries come calling and, despite all injunctions, we know don't we, that Olivia will hear the call?

In short, Gallant - the house - is a wonderful, gothicy, deathy place, brooding over a story rich in conception, a story straddling the borders of fairyland and gothic horror, all about family, love and loss. Also, I think, a story about the traps we build ourselves into - and the shadow side of all those good things we want in our lives.

I especially loved the way that in this book the weird and the mundane combine. The space given lovingly to cooking, sketching or playing piano, even while the darkness - well, no spoilers, let's just say, while the darkness does what darkness always does. The reminders that, as an orphan, Olivia is still just reaching out for her parents, desperate to learn more about them, desperate to decode a lost journal written partly in words and partly in pictures. Or the way that her fate and future will be intimately bound with both sides of her family, not just one. There are big mysteries here - and we get some answers to those - but there are also little mysteries in all directions, and Schwab is content to leave many of those to puzzle and intrigue. 

It's a satisfying read, rich in atmosphere and menace and deeply entrancing. There is much more here, though - what I took most of all from Gallant was its depiction of strength from those who are overlooked, its affirmation that people have a right to shape their own lives, make their own mistakes - and its warning that even seeking to shield others can be a way of diminishing and sidelining them. 

In short, it’s pure gold.

For more information about Gallant, see the publisher's website here.

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