Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: June 16 to 22, 2014
Read Count: 1
Recommended for: connoisseurs of dark fantasy
A children’s book not suitable for children should be a tagline somewhere on the cover because it’s necessary.
That aside, I really like this book and John Connolly’s writing. Fairy tale retelling is one of those things I stay away from because in general these stories are either not well conveyed or they don’t bring anything new to a classic narrative or they rely too much on the existing tale and world to carry the book. Also, I find many retellings boring and predictable, not because I already know how they end, but because the writers fail to bring in new or unique perspectives to keep the tales fresh and interesting. The Book of Lost Things is different in that regard, and I think it has a lot to do with Connolly being aware of and having control over the dark subject matter in which he chose to take on.
What to expect in varying degrees: abuse, neglect, isolation, jealousy, betrayal, manipulation, despair, deadly consequences, the pains of growing up, and of course cannibalism, to keep with fairy tale traditions.
Stories were different, though: they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for a chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read, David’s mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life.
The story takes place during the bombing of London. David and his parents live under the threat of war, but being a fairly young child he isn’t yet aware of the situation. He’s only aware of his present surrounding and his gravely ill mother who soon succumbs to her illness. After her passing, his father begins seeing a woman named Rose. Some time passes and they have a child, Georgie, and David and his father move into Rose’s estate outside of London to escape the bombing.
Things get worse for David after moving in as he and Rose don’t get along, he can’t stand the baby Georgie, he and his father also don’t get along and begin to drift a part, and on top of all that, he’s still struggling with his mother’s death. Not long after settling into his new bedroom, he begins hearing her voice calling him to the sunken garden out in the back of the estate, and he follows the voice a few times but finds nothing there. One night after a fight with Rose and his father, David escapes the house and makes his way into the sunken garden to be alone only to find himself in another world, trapped in a place where nightmares come to life. He must find a way to return to his world, but first he must embark on a long journey through the land of living nightmares–Elsewhere–in search of The Book of Lost Things to help him get back.
The premise is so similar to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that I’m sure many people have bought this book for a child thinking it’s basically an updated version of C.S. Lewis’ beloved tale. It’s not. If you’re thinking about getting this book as a gift (for a child), I suggest you read it yourself first. Instead of judging it by the lovely but misleading cover art and brief summary, experience the story for yourself.
* * *
* * * * spoilers below * * * *
John Connolly’s background in crime thrillers definitely shows in the writing. A lot of focus is placed on the more violent aspects of fairy tales like deadly consequences for the wicked. Quite a few scenes are disturbing in their depictions of meting out “justice” for wrongdoers. I found the Surgeon’s story particularly gruesome, yet fascinating in retrospect because it acts as a subtle turning point for David’s characterization. The violence and gory details, in this case, are necessary because they push David to become less of a passive bystander and more of a take-charge lead in his own quest to find a way home. The land of Elsewhere is certainly not a forgiving land and the wicked do deserve their punishment, but at times, the narrative seems to take liberties with these punishments by going into a lot of gory details. This is precisely why I think it’s not a book for children, in spite of its haphazard marketing. But the gory details are necessary in the grand scheme of the story. You appreciate them more once you get to the final chapter.
If you read for characters and you need to like a character in the story to continue reading, then you might have a difficult time following David on his journey because he’s a difficult character to like. He doesn’t become likable for me until more than halfway into the book. Even though I sympathize with his grief and loss, I find him to be flat and too one-dimensional for a big part of book. However, something to consider is that he does grow and learn from his experiences in Elsewhere to become a better person. It’s a slow process, though; one that requires some patience from the reader, but the pay off is satisfying. When you get to the final chapter, you’ll feel it.
And the final chapter is something else altogether. Perhaps it’s my favorite part of the book. I wouldn’t call it a satisfying ending, per se, but it does tie the whole story together in a real, tangible way. Short and poignant, it brings David’s long journey to a close by taking it back to the beginning. Similar to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but a lot better.
My second favorite thing about this book is John Connolly’s interview and glossary of fairy tale origins in the back. In the interview, Connolly explains his writing process, choice of fairy tales, and his decisions to change or leave the tales as they are. The whole thing is insightful and gives the book even more depths. I especially like the changes he made to fit David’s journey.