Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller is a fascinating story that describes the adventures of one girl, Elizabeth, in a large, dilapidated house that’s almost empty, excepting her father, the caretaker and her eccentric friend, Zenobia. Endearingly (and entertainingly for the audience), Zenobia is the polar opposite of Elizabeth. Zenobia is quickly made known as a peculiar character, who sees unfathomable beauty in the macabre, but shows great bravery and confidence next to the timid Elizabeth. This novel would be best appreciated by 9 to 12 year olds. Elizabeth and Zenobia is well written and touching, in a way that makes me wish I could gift it to a younger me.
This novel has a very prominent gothic elements and qualities similar to those of Lemony Snicket or Christopher William Hill, both of which utilize a certain style that draws humour from the morbid or pessimistic. Miller does use this technique throughout, but in subtler way that doesn’t take away from the fear and gravity of the problems that Elizabeth faces. I could safely say that anyone who enjoys either of the above authors, will find intrigue in Elizabeth and Zenobia for the darkness that is entwined in the plot and the gothic themes that bring character to an already beautiful story. From another perspective, it’s easy to see the inspiration from titles such as Alice in Wonderland and The Secret Garden, in the idea of a secret world (and certain references throughout). One of my favourite parts of this novel is how Miller takes this enchanting and captivating idea and illustrates it as ruthless and grotesque.
Miller carefully sets up the atmosphere for a good part of the story, so when it reached the complication, it felt as though it escalated and was over very quickly. The story itself is well written and interesting, but the action doesn’t start for a while, so instead you get the spine-chilling trepidation of knowing that eventually something big will happen. Knowing that, if the reader gets bored easily, I suggest that they try as hard as possible to get through the beginning, because the slight eeriness crescendos to vivid terror very quickly after the problem is revealed.
To surmise, I would definitely recommend this to those looking for a novel for a younger audience, especially upper primary school age. Miller has the ability of bringing the bizarre and impossible to life with her beautiful descriptions and skilful writing. I genuinely wish that I could give a copy of Elizabeth and Zenobia to a younger version of me. Something tells me that, as a 10 year old, my overly imaginative self would have immediately become obsessed with this book.
You can catch Jessica Miller talking about all things spooky at Word Play 2019.
Review by Youth Ambassador Claudia Blomberg