I’ve heard that there’s no such thing as a new idea, so maybe that’s why I mysteriously found myself with two similarly-themed books at the same time last month. It all started when I decided to see “what the kids were reading” and picked up a paperback copy of Inkheart, touted as a great book to read while waiting for Harry Potter VII: The Force is in Balance. You should definitely click that last link.
(For my original HP predictions, click here. I’ve since considered another alternative as viable, but at this point I’m okay with waiting to find out.)
This review isn’t about Inkheart; it seems to be a nice little book, but it lost my interest at about the eighteenth time that the characters reverted back to square one in their seemingly unending struggle to keep powerful things out of (comically) bad hands, and now sits on my bedstand unfinished. The point is that a few days later I was at my favorite bookhemoth and picked up a bargain bin copy of John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things: A Novel. I’ll admit that I was drawn in by its cover (well done, publishing house graphic designers!) but it didn’t take me long before the story sucked me in.
The basic premise – of both aforementioned books – is the idea of things within books coming alive, of the worlds within books being real places that we can interact with or even enter. It’s a charming concept for a bibliophile; in both cases, however, it’s painted with a dark brush.
In Lost Things, the main character is 12-year-old David who lives in wartorn WWII-era England. The story opens with the death of his mother; with delicate calmness it relates the gradual disintegration of David’s life as his father remarries. David begins to suffer what seem to be psychotic episodes, but we readers are permitted to see the true cause of his trouble: the books in his stepmother’s attic are speaking to him, a crooked man is watching him, and things are not right in the world.
Then it happens: Chapter Six comes along and catapults David out of his own world and into that of the crooked man and the whispering storybooks. Readers of fairy tales and fantasies will find comfort in the familiar quest-to-return-home theme that fills the remainder of the book, but don’t get me wrong – this storytelling is captivating, fresh, exciting, and utterly engrossing. Connolly wins my heart by twisting “B-list” fairy tales (“Little Red Riding Hood,” “Sweetheart Roland,” “Hansel and Gretel,”, and “Briar Rose,” to name a few) to his own dark purposes, allowing them to inhabit his storybook world while advising the reader not to take things at face value, not to accept the Disneyfied version of stories – or life. (The book is a beautiful nod to Baum’s Wizard of Oz, too, but on a larger scale.)
This is a coming-of-age story in a big way, but it isn’t really a children’s book. I wouldn’t hesitate to hand it to an advanced reader; if my eventual children have the same love of reading and fairy tale that I did, I’m sure this will become a treasured volume on their shelves. That being said, Lost Things is really more of an adult’s book. It incorporates element of horror (although is never truly horrible), murder, abduction, war, psychological issues, grieving, and death. It is a story about jealousy and change and the “facts of life” (in a non-reproductive sense). Fairly frank dealings with homosexuality and the issue of pedophilia in one part of the book are treated so skillfully that they would have gone over my head as a child, but today’s kids may read and understand more than their parents are comfortable with. (Which is why you probably ought to preview any adult book you hand your kids, but whatever.)
The ending is powerful in its willingness to not be a fairy tale. I’ll tell you right now that Lost Things doesn’t end “horribly ever after” – but it isn’t what I’d call “happily” either. No – this book is about life, and it gives a “real life” ending that rings more true and is more satisfying than many books you’ll come across.
To the best of my knowledge, The Book of Lost Things is the only book of this kind that Connolly has written (yet! cross my fingers). However, by all accounts his other books (murder/mystery books with elements of horror and fantasy in them) are fantastic. If you’re not into the fantasy/fairy tale genre of literature, you might Connolly up in the mystery section next time you’re in the library or bookstore. But if you’re even reasonably tolerant of magicking in your books, I wholeheartedly recommend Lost Things. It’s the sort of book I wish I had written myself. 🙂