Olivia Prior has lived at Merilance since she was two years old. While Merilance calls itself a school, the truth is that it is closer to an asylum, a prison. It is a place where girls and young women who are not wanted are sent when they have nowhere else to go. They are supposed to be cared for, but they are not. They are supposed to be educated, but they are not. The children in residence at Merilance are supposed to be prepared for life after they leave the school, but they are not. As terrible as Merilance is, the outside world is worse, and the girls that leave, fleeing Merilance for a better life, always end up destitute and often end up dead shortly after they depart.
At 16, she remembers very little from her life before her mother left her at Merliance, but she continues to dream of how her life might unfold away from it. Olivia is mute, but she can read and write. She also knows how to sign. She was taught by one of the matrons at Merilance, who, after teaching Olivia how to communicate effectively, left. None of the other matrons have bothered to learn.
One day, she is called into the matron’s office and informed that there is a letter for her. It is from her uncle, Arthur. The letter states that he has been searching for her for years and now that he has found her she is to immediately join him at their family home. Olivia packs her meager belongings and makes the journey to Gallant, her family’s estate. When she arrives, she does not receive the welcome she has dreamed of for years. Instead, she is greeted with confusion and resistance. Arthur is dead, and has been for some time. The two remaining servants, Hannah and Edgar, still live on the estate helping to care for Matthew, his only child. Matthew’s response to Olivia’s arrival is much more hostile. He states that Olivia must leave, immediately. He insists that she must leave that very instant, but Edgar and Hannah explain that she can’t leave until they make arrangements for another carriage to pick her up. Olivia is shown to a room, where she vacillates between wondering where she will go now and how she can stay at Gallant. Because one thing is certain, now that Olivia has found her family, and her home, she’s not going to give either one up easily.
With Gallant, V.E. Schwab tells a story that is about opposites, extremes, and the grey zones that populate the areas between: autonomy and dependence; solitude and family; hope and despair; freedom and captivity; life and death. She illustrates how we all struggle to find a livable position of balance while also exploring how we must navigate whether by choice or circumstance, a way to inhabit the extremes. The tone of the novel is decidedly dark, but not exclusively so. Schwab illustrates how, even in the darkest places and situations, it is possible to find happiness, love, and a feeling of belonging.
Gallant has been published as a Young Adult novel, as its protagonists and themes will appeal directly to teens, but it could, and should, appeal to adults just as easily (if not more so). Schwab joins the ranks of writers like Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman, who have written fiction that is targeted at children, but will appeal, and speak to, older readers as well.