The book is set in World War 2, and sick children are looked after in Briar Hill hospital. This is in the countryside, where a country house has been taken over and run by nuns. It has a neglected and overgrown garden with a sundial in the middle.
The book is partially true, this did happen when children with tuberculosis were segregated together to stop the spread of the disease. Sadly some children had traumatic experiences before they came and even sadder, some died rather than recovered.
The book has an element of fantasy running through it. Winged horses appear in mirrors and there is a conflict between good and evil, which could be a reflection of the war. A wounded winged horse appears in the sundial garden and the heroine of the book, Emmaline, has to protect it by collecting objects which are the colours of the rainbow – a difficult task in a dull, drab world. The fantasy is so closely woven into reality that the two merge at times. Do those that die before their time become winged horses and escape to a different reality?
I liked the characters in the book. Emmaline has tuberculosis and there are hints of a traumatic life event; her friend Anna is dying of the disease, but finds joy in a pack of rainbow coloured pencil; Benny and Jack who are unkind to Emmaline and pinch her chocolate, a rare treat; three little timid frightened girls, referred to as little mice.
The most marvellous aspect of the book is the illustrations, which are breathtakingly beautiful. They are not just there to illustrate the story, but are an integral part of it. Some are full page, their detailed, soft tones are magical, their compositions full of life and movement.
I did wonder whether a book dealing with illness and death was suitable for my teenage granddaughter. But young adults could be thinking about life and death and the meaning of existence. This book sensitively puts over the idea that there might be more to life than our senses can comprehend. I shall look forward to hearing her opinion.