This is definitely not a young adult book. If you should try, with best intentions, after reading numerous glowing reviews and having heard Connolly’s name bandied about the bookish world, to gift this one to a ten-year-old, expect stern words and doubts of judgement. And for pity’s sakes, don’t give it to any girls, because it’s even less friendly to the female person than Grimms’ Fairytales. In fact, it does bear a strong resemblance to the writing of the dear Brothers, which is not a been a bad thing if one enjoys the flagrant telling and the elaborate language of fairy tales. That all generally works beautifully here, except that it’s oh-so-very dark and misanthropic a tale that I’d reserve it for grown boys who used to be good and are having trouble figuring the path ahead. Which, as you might have guessed, is also not altogether abhorrent. But, let us speak logically, and dissect this.
“One bottle was filled almost to the top with eyeballs. They seemed alive to David, as though being wrenched from their sockets had not deprived them of the capacity to see. Another contained a woman’s hand, a gold ring upon its wedding finger, red varnish flaking slowly from its nails.”
It begins with a narrative we can all get behind, a long tradition in English country houses and cracks in the garden walls, and a young man–almost adolescent–embarking on an adventure. Except this adventure is framed by three salient grimnesses; the death of his mother, the father remarried/subsequent baby brother, and World War II. This is the adult world with danger, his perceptions of it seeped in negative emotions of loss, jealousy, fear, and sometimes even boredom. He is being stalked by a Crooked Man, who seems evil, though he cannot say exactly why. The young man, David, journeys through the crack and falls into a land that is fairy-tale twisted. Rescued by a Woodsman, he embarks on a journey to see the king, gain insight from The Book of Lost Things and hopefully return to his own world. As the story progresses, he meets different people and occasionally they will tell him stories that echo fairy tales he has read.
“And, in truth, I prefer to hunt children. They make better sport, and better trophies for my wall, for they are beautiful.”
A wonderful, traditional format; journey to Oz and to home, but Connolly lets it unwind more than a bit toward the end, as he indulges in descriptions of The Crooked Man’s evil deeds, in a way that really doesn’t matter to the story, and just serves to point out the horrors of the world. Incest, torture, murder, draining away life; in some ways, I too felt my life drained away by this tale, by the cataloguing of misuse of power, the isolationism of a village, the careless mutilation and torture. Instead of uplifted, I felt ground away, like I had been watching a war montage. Connolly is not celebrating childhood or impending adulthood as much as outlining it as a horrible, dastardly trap where the right choices will mean honor and loss, and the wrong choices mean torture and loss.
And, after all, I have days I feel that way. Where the world has pounded me down. Where humanity seems too full of itself. Where individual kindness feels scarce. Which is why I pick up other books. This is why Catherynne Valente had to write The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. and The Orphan’s Tales. This book is indeed about Lost Things, the most lostest being childhood itself, except in this version of childhood, what David leaves behind is fantasies of his mother and his first family, not idle days exploring wardrobes, or playing at sword-fighting, or looking for moon-paths. In this book of childhood, the most halcyon of times were pre-war and pre-illness and so distant as to be barely present.
“Most of the children David knew had by now left the city, thronging train stations with little brown luggage labels tied to their coats on their way to farms and strange towns. Their absence made the city appear emptier and increased the sense of nervous expectancy that seemed to govern the lives of all who remained. Soon, the bombers would come, and the city was shrouded in darkness at night to make their task harder.”
Atmosphere is well done, if dark and grim. Characterization is interesting. David is well done, as layered as one can possibly be at that age, struggling with pride, isolation, independence, and a great deal of loss. Most of the rest of the characters exist as they do in fairy tales, that is to say, as archetypes. There is an off-note encounter with the Seven Dwarves, who have become communists; an anomaly in that they are supposed to be humorous. It’s also worth nothing that the Gallant Knight is in love with a man, and while a man of honor, is also a doomed, tragic figure.
“David had an opportunity to examine its face as it hovered: it resembled a woman’s but was longer and thinner, with a lipless mouth that left its sharp teeth permanently exposed. Now those teeth tore into its prey, ripping great chunks of bloody fur from its body as it fed.”
As a final note, to myself and those who follow the humanist footpath: I do not think Connolly loves females overmuch. Because, wow. Aside from the idolized but dead mother, the doomed deer-girl, and a friendly female horse, there is absolutely nothing to love here about females. I’m going to list it here, because I’m not going to ever re-read this book, and someday, someone will ask why: the dead mother. The Loups born from Red Riding Hood’s sex. The harpies. The grossly fat, selfish Snow White. The Evil Huntress obsessed with finding the perfect prey. The Evil Enchantress asleep behind the wall of thorns. The girl in a jar, about as close as one comes to a refrigerator in a non-refrigerator world.
One of the most beautiful, happiest passages in the book:
“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 the 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.”
Absolutely beautiful, and absolutely true. It came alive to me, but not in a pleasant way, more in the way of being lost in a forest and arriving at a town where nobody speaks your language and everyone looks at you askance, and you feel you may not be safe after all, which is why on my own personal scale, it’s about a ‘okay.’ On the technical side, I’d say it’s a four star, meaning generally well written, lovely use of language, recognizable themes, consistent story. All that said, it’s not a book I’d ever give and would recommend to only a few.