Book Review: Raspberry Hill

Raspberry Hill (Hallonbacken) by Eva Frantz

Reviewed by Annie Prime

Ten-year-old Stina has consumption and accepts that she will die soon. She lives in an impoverished but loving home in 1920s Helsinki, with her widowed mother and six siblings. The story begins with Stina being sent off in a fancy car to a sanatorium where she might hopefully convalesce.

The sanatorium is a grand, castle-like building in the forest. She is awe-struck by the magnificent building and its surroundings and wants to explore but is confined to her ward. She compares her isolation to that of Robinson Crusoe, and finds comfort in the book. There is little other comfort to be had. The nurses are stern, especially Sister Emerentia, and she is left alone with her morbid thoughts. Her loneliness is temporarily relieved when a little boy called Ruben appears in her room one night.

She meets Dr Haglan, a kindly man who explains that her place in the sanatorium has been funded by wealthy benefactors who want to support Dr Haglan in his medical research. He believes that the right type of medicine and fresh air can help cure consumptive children from the inner city, and Stina is to be one of his fortunate guinea pigs. However, on a walk around the grounds one day, Stina meets a strange old woman, whom she believes to be a witch, who tells her to beware: poor children suffer tragic fates at Raspberry Hill.

Stina writes home to her family every week but receives nothing back. She thinks they must have forgotten about her, or be preparing themselves for her death. And she does indeed to be heading for death. After a short stint of improvement, her cough is now getting worse.

Stina’s friendship with Ruben grows. He tells her about the building and its past, including a terrible fire that once claimed many lives in the East Wing, and leads her through its spooky corridors. Mysteries develop. A rich little girl arrives who turns out to have a heart defect and Stina wonders what she is doing at a consumption sanatorium. During a nocturnal wander with Ruben, Stina hears arguments between Dr Haglan and Sister Emerentia in the abandoned East Wing. What are they doing there in the middle of the night? And why is Stina’s consumption just getting worse?

There are two very striking characters in this book. The first is Stina, whose bright, thoughtful voice narrates the story. She is a hugely endearing character who never complains and takes pride in small things, like her skill at reading, and the cleanliness of her poor family home. She accepts her fate with such stoicism and displays humble gratitude for the few pleasures she has. In many ways this spirited young girl reminded me of the eponymous protagonist of Maresi in her voice and outlook.

The other main character of the book has to be the building itself: a haunted castle in the woods filled with winding corridors and secret wings. It is an enduring childhood fantasy: the unwanted child whisked away to a grandiose building with many luxuries, dangers and mysteries, in everything from Jane Eyre to Harry Potter, from Northern Lights to The Secret Garden, which gives the book a timeless and rather British feeling despite being set in Helsinki in the 1920s. I was continuously reminded of the lonely morbidity of The Secret Garden and sober tragedy of A Little Princess (both by Frances Hodgson Burnett) while reading Raspberry Hill. The sanatorium and surrounding grounds are hugely atmospheric and lend themselves easily to cinematic interpretation, perhaps a moody animation along the lines of Coraline. I am also reminded of dark children’s tales such as A Series of Unfortunate Events, but without the whimsy.

The subject matter is genuinely frightening. Death is everywhere: it is Stina’s assumed fate, her father died in the war; there is a large cemetery near the sanatorium, the victims of the great fire in the East Wing come up several times, Stina is quick to believe that Sister Emerentia is trying to kill her, and Sister Emerentia herself nearly dies. It could be argued that it is too sad and morbid for a middle-grade audience, but I do think that Stina’s plucky character and the unequivocal safety and fortune of the ending balance it out. Also, the ways in which Stina and Ruben face death and the afterlife are so practical and unafraid – very Nordic – so this book may provide useful talking points for parents and children to read together and think about illness and death should they wish to, especially given the current pandemic (I don’t think anyone could read about the terrible consumptive coughing in this book and not relate it to covid-19). Then again, a book all about dying from lung disease might be too close to the bone for many households.

Plot-wise, it bowls along at a satisfying pace while still leaving ample room for detail, character and atmosphere, and altogether it is a very accomplished and engaging piece of storytelling. It manages to be entirely straightforward and unsentimental while also being full of intense emotion and mystery, and though filled with nothing but tragedy until the very last minute, the redemptive ending is thoroughly comforting.

In conclusion, I’m sure it would be a big hit with thoughtful young readers, as long as parents can be convinced that a sombre, morbid read is appropriate for their children in these times.

Hallonbacken by Eva Frantz

Published by Schildts & Söderströms

Foreign rights represented by Helsinki Literary Agency