The seed of Norfolk-based Polly Crosby’s debut novel—described as 2020’s most haunting and magical literary fiction debut—germinated when she heard about Kit Williams’ Masquerade, “an armchair treasure hunt”.
The book’s central character, nine-year-old Romilly Kemp, lives in an ancient farmhouse in Suffolk with her eccentric artist father Tobias and cat Montgomery.
Until Romilly was four, they lived in London with their mother, who is now unwell and lives in a therapeutic retreat. Thereafter, she
and her father travelled often, staying at B&Bs, camping and sofa-surfing. While living the nomadic life, they also followed the circus around for a while.
Tobias, who had lost his university job of teaching art many years ago, is obsessed with painting. His imaginative art spins magical stories that are full of colour, their tiny details making them seem almost real. Tobias begins to work on a new project—a picture book—starring Romilly and her cat. When the book is published, it is a success, and Romilly is amazed at her 2D version—a startling likeness of her. Tobias tells her that he has captured a glimpse of her and held it in these pages “like a flower pressing”, and that she will stay that way forever in time.
At first, Romilly is excited about the idea of becoming famous, with images of glittering evening dresses, flashing camera bulbs, giant chocolate cakes and expensive teddies lighting up her mind. But the fame is both a blessing and a curse. When people start asking her for autographs and photographers secretly click pictures of hers, she stops going to school, staying isolated in her home. Further, hidden within the pages of the book is a treasure hunt with an unknown code, and in no time, several people begin asking her for clues. Tobias tells her though that the treasure in his books is not conventional like gold and jewels, but something rare and valuable. He adds that the joy is not just in finding the treasure, but in the excitement and anticipation of searching for it.
Soon there are four more books in the series after which her father tells her about his dementia that is affecting his memory. As Romilly attempts to solve the puzzle of the treasure hunt herself, she works out several cryptic hints in the books—such as a bell, a feather, a bauble, a forget-me-not and a salt cellar—five objects, each of which she had received from someone she loved. It leads her to unravel a mystery about her own life and family—she discovers that the girl in the books is not her, but a twin sister she had.
The book is filled with charming descriptions of people, places and things, as seen through a child’s eyes. “When heady dreams come true, it is sometimes hard to keep your feet on the ground,” writes Crosby in the book’s Acknowledgements. Indeed.