Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty

Libba Bray
For ages 14 and up
Random House, 2005   ISBN: 978-0385732314

Sixteen year old Gemma Doyle is in a permanent state of disgruntlement. More than anything she wants to leave India, where she has spent all her life, and go to England. After all, how can she have a proper season in Bombay. Here it is hot and dirty and provincial. She wants balls and parties and real dress shops. She is fed up with her life and she wants something more. However, Gemma's mother seems determined to keep her daughter in India  and therefore her mother is on at the receiving end of Gemma's anger and frustration.

On Gemma's sixteenth birthday Gemma and her mother are on their way to visit a friend when everything goes horribly wrong. Once again Gemma and her mother argue and this time Gemma runs off. This is most unwise. The streets of Bombay are not a safe place for an English girl to wander around unaccompanied. As Gemma tries to get her bearings she has a vision of her mother being stalked by some terrifying shadowy creature. Then she sees her mother raise a knife and kill herself. In horror Gemma tries to find her mother and when she finally does, she discovers that her mother is indeed dead.

As a result of this terrible tragedy Gemma gets her wish, she and her father go to England. Only, instead of becoming the social butterfly that she dreamed of becoming, Gemma is sent to a finishing school for young ladies. Not being one of the popular set in the school, Gemma has a very hard time of it at first. She refuses to be bullied and in the end she befriends some of the most powerful girls in the school. Gemma becomes the heart of a new group which calls itself the Order. In all there are four girls, all of whom are hurt or 'damaged' in some way, and all of whom are looking for something to make their life better and more meaningful

Gemma herself is struggling with a number of problems. For one thing she is trying to find out the meaning of the strange visions that she has. In addition, she cannot understand why the mysterious young man who calls himself Kartik persists in telling her that she must not allow herself to have these visions. What business is it of his? Then she is trying to come to terms with her mother's death for which she feels that she to blame. On top of this there is the strange book that Gemma has found in which a girl called Mary Dowd describes a group called the Order. In the book Mary describes the strange visions she has and mentions  a place called the realms. What can it all mean?

Libby Bray has created a powerful story which is at times haunting, and sometimes quite disturbing. Gemma discovers that life in England is not at all what she expected it to be. She, like most girls and women, has very little freedom, and her options in life will be very limited indeed. It is for this reason that her companions join her in their little group – they are desperate to be something more, and to have more control over their destinies. Of course, Gemma has a lot more going on than the average 1890’s girl, which is what makes her story especially intriguing. Readers will find it very hard to tear themselves away from this tale and they will be eager to find out what happens next to Gemma and her friends.