Reviews /

The Mystery of Raspberry Hill

Authored by Eva Franz (translated by Annie Prime)
Published by Pushkin Children's

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Twelve-year-old Stina is dying of tuberculosis and travelling to a sanatorium on the charmingly named Raspberry Hill. There she is to receive treatment of fresh air and rest, though Stina herself is less than hopeful of a positive outcome. The sanatorium holds a dark secret too, one of which Stina is blithely unaware…at least for the first half of this suspense novella from Eva Franz.

As characters are introduced – Ruben, Doctor Hagman, the nurses, Esmerelda – the shadows that surround the hospital start to wrap themselves closer and closer around Stina: What exactly happened in the East Wing fire from years before? Who is the ‘witch’ who appears in the grounds? And is Stina’s treatment going to work?

Young suspense fans will very much enjoy this miniature gothic mystery but the book will also serve as a light-touch introduction to some of the more macabre or grisly titles in the genre. The translation is extremely readable and manages to instil and maintain a feel of the author’s original Nordic atmosphere. Franz’s own style has a lightly textured spookiness, avoiding any real scares, though the sinister depiction of an early twentieth century understanding of medicine needs no supernatural trappings to make a mark.

Personally, I felt the tone was, for most of the book, a little reserved making the sudden ‘horror’ of the climax somewhat abrupt. The ending also felt rather pat after the overall dark feel of the rest of the book. The plot generally is a distinct ‘slow-burn’ – always a good thing for a sensationist story but I did find myself, more than once, wanting something to happen in the first hundred pages or so. For children, this is also an important consideration. Plot is key for them and some of the questions that are formed during Stina’s early days at the sanatorium lost momentum; as a result, perhaps a few readers might also be lost mid-novel who, like me, were expecting something a little stronger.

But I don’t think that the book should really be read or remembered in terms of scares. What stays after the last page is turned is the novel’s very sensitive and honest exploration of mortality. Stina’s regular references to the fact that she knows she will die are gently framed by her soft and level-headed narration. Death is something that children have a lot of questions about and while this novel does not – nor attempt to – answer them, it provides readers with a main character whose intelligence helps them to make some sense of that mysterious but inevitable thing that we must all face one day. (The irony is also subtly pointed that ‘science’, in the form of Doctor Hagman, for all its logic and ‘truth’, does not have the answers either.) When the ending is reached, after all the questions of the main story have been logically put to bed, we are left with the greatest question of all – one which each young reader is allowed room for their own interpretation.