Olivia Prior has spent her entire life at the Merilance School for Independent Girls, a gray and loveless institution haunted by half-formed ghouls only she can see. Although the ghosts are unsettling, it’s actually the mysterious journal her mother left behind that keeps Olivia up at night. Filled with entries punctuated by ominous drawings in dark ink that suggest her mother descended into madness, the journal tells a strange story Olivia can’t untangle.
One day, a letter arrives at Merilance. It reveals that Olivia has living family members after all and summons her home to Gallant, her family’s estate. But Gallant has ghosts of its own, and within the sprawling house Olivia finds more questions than answers. A gate in the garden leads to a twisted world of dust and death, family portraits are missing from the halls, and one of Olivia’s cousins insists that she should leave Gallant while she still can. Yet no amount of secrets or nightmares can dissuade Olivia from claiming her place in the Prior family.
In her first YA novel since 2017, V. E. Schwab explores what it means to have a home and how a house can be a haven for one person and a prison for another. They juxtapose the pain of losing family with the pain of never knowing one, as characters struggle to preserve whatever scraps of love and comfort they manage to find.
Such fragile familial bonds stand in stark contrast to the macabre imagery of the world beyond the garden gate. When Olivia, who cannot speak and uses sign language, meets someone at Gallant who also signs, or finds traces of her mother’s life through objects in her bedroom, or shares a moment at the piano with her cousin Matthew, these moments carry real emotional weight. But as Olivia discovers more about her past and a connection to the darker side of Gallant, she must decide how far she’s willing to go to hold onto her newfound family.
In addition to its narrative text, Gallant incorporates reproductions of entries from Olivia’s mother’s journal, and dreamlike illustrations by Manuel Šumberac enhance the story’s moody atmosphere. The result is a cryptic tale of familial love and loss that’s perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Seanan McGuire.