The House in the Cerulean Sea

T. J. Klune
The House in the Cerulean Sea Cover

The House in the Cerulean Sea


This is a delightful book about positivity, about believing in hope and the power of family, no matter how we find them. I've pretty much devoured this over the last couple of days and it has hit the spot in making me smile, tugging on my heartstrings and also making me think about my own youth and the wonderful kids I shared my life with.

'The House in the Cerulean Sea' is the story of Linus Baker, a man probably in his forties who is stuck in a government inspection role for pretty much his whole career. He's diligent, by the book and believes he is working fairly and consistently, despite the contempt his colleagues, supervisors, and by extension his organisation clearly feel towards him. Of course, this being a YA fantasy book his inspection role is inspecting the homes (typically orphanages) where magical children reside. In this setting magic exists, but it is feared and shunned and discriminated against.

Linus is an interesting, and to a large extent a frustrating character. He lives alone, he experiences body image issues and tolerates the absolute shittest corporate behaviour in his day to day job, and yet it is clear his job is his life. He's good at it for one (good being 'by the book'), but it does him absolutely no favours whatsoever. There is a real sense that he cares about the children whose environments he is investigating and wants the best for them, but the best is what the 'Department' has ruled in their rules and regulations. Anyone who has experienced trying to do the right thing when processes and rules get in the way will recognise and be frustrated by the kind of person Linus is and the environment he works in. Some of the early sections in his workplace are played for laughs, and I am not sure they hit the right tone as it isn't clear who or what Klune is poking fun of.

Linus's story though is one of awakening and the novel very much feels like a 'coming of middle age' novel. Deep down, you know he's a beautiful, wonderful person who needs to let go and become the man he can be. In a novel strong on positive, and authentic queer experiences this character growth of Linus is quite clearly telegraphed, but it's a brilliant message to young audiences. Don't wait until your forties to be the person you are! Flowers and gardens are used as motifs throughout the novel and it's hard not to miss the symbolism of roots being nurtured, of flowers gently opening and allowing themselves to flourish. Sure, the reader knows they are being taken along but it's rather beautiful and touching. There are some moments of such wonderful tenderness which just made my heart melt.

The main plot of the story takes Linus to an island by the ocean to investigate a home of magical children supervised by a rather sweet gentleman called Arthur Parnassus. The children is what really makes this novel fun. At it's heart this is a love story but it's the kids that make it so much fun. It took me a while to get into them as characters, maybe it was how they were written or I struggled to hear their voice but by the end of the novel I really began to care about them. None of them really sound like kids but at the same time we can give the novel a pass, because of course they are magical beings. I don't really want to spoil the surprise about the nature of the kids but they are all unique and all special and the Dad in me really warmed to them.

This is such a novel of positivity, but also one which shines a harsh light on discrimination and prejudice. When I was reading the book I carried on finding really positive images and messages about kids I had known in my youth and thinking how much this book would be enjoyed by younger audiences today growing up and struggling against what can be a horrible world.

I thought about the kids who feel that everyone is watching them and passing judgement due to their body shape.

I thought about queer kids and trans kids, often forced out by their families, or bullied into an identity that isn't their own. I thought about those kids who have their own 'found family' and the richness of those relationships when their birth family abandons them.

I thought about my old mates who lived in the care system, and were given a second chance, and how often getting out of their familial home environment was the best thing that happened to them (recognising this isn't everyone's experience).

I thought about kids who are abused and seen only in the lens as victims.

I thought about kids who are sick, who aren't neurotypical, who have a visible disability who are looked at, stared at and not recognised for who they are.

I thought about my old friends who experienced incarceration in borstals and young offenders institutes. Kids who are labelled as criminal and no good and worthless, who by the time they reach adulthood have 'run out' of chances and labelled for life.

I thought about kids who are institutionalised and victims of state violence and how they struggle to get out.

One scene in particular will hit home for people of colour, or members of vilified groups. It's something working class kids experience when young, when you don't belong - when your face, your accent and your clothes mark you out as poor and you are excluded.

There is just so much in this book, and it's funny because it's quite a simplistic book in many respects, the plot is linear and it does have a slightly unrealistic outcome when people face up to their prejudice. However, after reading, I found myself thinking more and more about the themes and the people from my past. I hope, I really hope that there are teens out there reading this book and thinking, 'this is me, and it's going to be alright'. Despite the subject matter of discrimination there is a lot of love in this book.

So it's a big plus from me and I had a lot of fun with it. I suppose I should address some of the controversy of where Klune got his source material from. He'd heard about stealing of indigenous children in Canada and their forced entry into residential schools and the horrific treatment of them and this was, in part, inspiration for this story. I was aware of the criticism prior to reading and was a little wary. Having read the novel I think the criticism is unwarranted - this novel in no way replaces an indigenous voice, it doesn't glamourise or sanitise horrific treatment of indigenous children (it's an influence, not the subject of the novel). More importantly there is so much positivity and hope in this novel this book is a force for good in the world. As I hope this review suggests without getting into spoilers, this book is a celebration of diversity and inclusivity on the individual's terms. It is a strong critique of state violence and state incarceration and management, and I really think Klune is one of the good guys in YA literature.