"My Sanctuary" Review and Interview with Sarah-Jane Lehoux
Today marks the release of a fantastic novella called My Sanctuary.
A lonely girl who dreams of an impossible future. A sullen boy with a troubled past. Together, with a stained glass angel, they form a bond that shelters them from the cruel indifference of life in a church-run orphanage in the 1950s. When a “secret game” leads to the unthinkable, a choice must be made that no mother, real or imagined should ever have to face.
A child can’t choose its mother, but maybe a mother can choose her child.
My Sanctuary is the story of Dot, a young teen growing up in a Catholic orphanage in the fifties. It isn’t a nice place to be, but there are bright spots in her life, from her crush on her school teacher Mr. Martin to taking care a fellow orphan named Kenny who she has dubbed her “baby.” Beyond that, though, Dot finds what we all need sometimes: a sanctuary, somewhere to go where a stained-glass angel smiles down on her and she can escape the everyday brutality she faces from other kids and the adults responsible for them.
Dot’s voice is distinct, authentic, and engaging; she draws the reader in with her first words. Among Ms. Lehoux’s great skills as a storyteller is her ability to peel back the layers of Dot’s world and shine a light on the horrors occurring while never leaving the perspective of a young girl. Without spoiling the story by giving details, I can say all it takes is one phrase to answer the question of why Dot is there or what happened to Kenny’s real mother, making the reader’s stomach bottom out and realize what has occurred. Though the themes the novella touches on are decidedly adult, My Sanctuary never feels like an adult is telling a child’s tale. No, Dot could be any fourteen-year-old, so real that as I listened to her tell her story, I wanted to wrap my arms around her and assure her everything would be okay.
Of course, the sad thing is that’s rarely true. Though set over fifty years ago, My Sanctuary is very much relevant today. Children suffer abuse and grow up too soon. Women have their bodily autonomy stripped away. People hide behind religion while committing horrible acts.
And everyone still needs a sanctuary.
Ms. Lehoux doesn’t merely depict darkness in this story but confronts it, unflinching and unwavering. At all times she remains true to her characters and the tale she set out to tell. Much like the angel in the sanctuary, the storyteller’s steadfast gaze never leaves Dot in her time of need when a weaker person would look away in fear. Through Ms Lehoux, the reader remains with Dot as well—even long after the story has ended.
Gut-wrenching, timely, brave, and nothing short of brilliant, My Sanctuary is a powerful read about the bonds of found family and the struggle to find refuge when we’re at our most vulnerable. I absolutely urge everyone to read it. Well done, Ms. Lehoux. Well done.
Read on for my Q&A with Sarah-Jane!
1. Where did the inspiration for My Sanctuary come from?
I know this will sound Stephanie Meyer’s level lame, but from a dream. The majority of my story ideas start out as a fragment of a dream. I have sleep apnea and sleep paralysis, which for science-y reasons beyond my realm of knowledge, give me vivid, weird ass dreams.
I don’t remember what the dream that inspired My Sanctuary is now, but I remember that it happened early on a Sunday morning. It disturbed me so much that I got up right away and started researching orphanages online.
2. It manages to confront major issues that have, sadly, become political in many ways, but never comes across as preachy. Did you set out to write Something With A Message, or was it more a byproduct of the story that wanted to be told?
Once I have the initial idea of a story, it grows from there, pretty much in a stream of consciousness process. I usually don’t have much control over where a story goes. Often what I set out to write is completely different from what I intended.
I didn’t mean My Sanctuary to have the message that it does. I wasn’t aware of it until I typed THE END. Then I sat back and thought, “Huh. So it’s what it was all about.” I realized right away that it was a story with the potential for polarizing readers, so during edits I made sure my personal opinions were kept to a minimum. I want readers to come away from My Sanctuary with a fresh take on an old issue, and not have the aftertaste of my personal politics in their mouth.
3. In some ways, My Sanctuary might seem a departure from what you're known for, as your published work is fantasy and much of your work seems to have a decidedly paranormal, fantastical, or horror bent. But genre aside, there are many crossover themes such as loss of power, poverty, abandonment, found family, etc. Was it harder to write something non-fantasy or non-(traditional)horror?
Not really. I found Dot to be the kind of protagonist writers dream of. She’s chatty, engaging, and her words just flowed out of me. I also purposefully kept descriptions of the setting to a minimum (the opposite of what I do with my fantasy/horror stories) so that readers could subconsciously insert their own childhood town into their reading experience. This also made it easier to write because I wasn’t overwhelmed with researching the proper setting.
4. My Sanctuary ends in a way that could be taken...perhaps ambiguously, so optimistic readers can fill in perhaps different answers than the realists among us. Do you know what happened after the story fades to black? (Not that I expect you to tell me here or spoil the story--I'm just curious.)
I’ve tried not to think about what happens after the story because I was afraid of tainting the whole of it with one direction or the other. But let me just say this: I’m a glass is half empty kind of gal and I’m not one for happily ever afters.
5. Since we're talking audiobooks on Twitter while I was writing these interview questions, who would be your dream person to narrate the audiobook of My Sanctuary?
Ooh, good question. And hard too because it would require a young actress. I’d say Jodelle Ferland. She was the lead in Tideland, one of my favourite movies, and she was able to express a lot of the same kind of scarred innocence that Dot, the narrator of My Sanctuary, has.
Thank you for interviewing me today. :-) I would like to offer a giveaway to your readers. Ebook copies (PDFs) of My Sanctuary to 2 commenters, drawn at random, as long as they share what their sanctuary was when they were fourteen years old.