The Shell House (2002)
The Shell House is not as successful as Newbery’s Sisterland (2003), partially because the two stories in The Shell House—contemporary and WWI England—do not coalesce as seamlessly. In the modern tale, The Shell House does not present a solid perspective on homosexuality, and can only—in terms of historicity—reflect the anguish of suppression in the WWI story. Combined with one rather glaring narrative hole, these imperfections render the text less satisfying in many ways. It is still an enjoyable, worthwhile novel, but it lacks the emotional power of Sisterland.
Critic Rob Bittner’s synopsis is valuable:
“In this novel, the protagonist, Greg, deals with the elements of both sexuality and religion, but not in tandem and with no clear conclusion or acceptance of anything. He explores sexuality with a girl named Tanya and a boy named Jordan, and religion with a girl named Faith. While he discovers that faith in God may indeed be plausible, he does not come to any conclusion regarding his sexual identity, and the sub-plot of Greg and Jordan is never entirely wrapped. The parallel story of Edmund and Alex, who meet in WWI, more closely links the themes of homosexuality and religious belief, but ends up with Edmund experiencing the typical suffering associated with being gay and having the church turn against him.” (Bittner)
Sisterland is a poignant investigation into the self-identity formation of the protagonist, Hilly. Her grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, come to live with the family; her troubled memory—and memories—reveal a history that complicates Hilly’s adolescence even more than do her rebellious younger sister; her gay friend and his new, Palestinian boy-friend, Saeed; and her own growing attraction to Saeed’s brother, Rashid.
The plot is well constructed and engaging; we learn the truth long before Hilly does, but this does not infringe upon the text’s ability to retain our interest. Newbery’s characters are sufficiently rounded to command our affection, even the sister, Zoë, who is, to echo her description of Hilly, “a bit of a cow.”