The trail of “things to read after Harry Potter” has already led me past many books in which real-world characters get mixed up in the world where fairy tales and children’s stories are real. Off the top of my head, these include the work of authors Chris Colfer, Eoin Colfer, Ian Beck, Frank Beddor, Michael Buckley, Marissa Burt, Michael Ende, Lev Grossman, Tom Holt, Lisa Papademetriou, and Sarah Beth Durst; even if I’ve forgotten twice as many, my point is made. If you’ve been following developments in my book review column, you might appreciate the variety that gives spice to this theme. These tales vary in the way our world intersects with the world of legend: sometimes, for example, everyday people fall through a book or similar gateway into the land of once-upon-a-time; while at other times, fairy-tale characters and creatures make their way into our reality. They also vary in tone, from juvenile mystery-thrillers to heartbreaking or horrifying novels for grown-ups. Often they also serve as opportunities to re-tell familiar old stories in an interesting, new way.
This novel, now—well, it’s a bit hard to classify. It’s basically an adult novel; but it also has some young-adult appeal, since its main character is a kid. Adults who have been through circumstances like those David experiences, will sympathize with him. Younger readers may or may not identify with him; without some maturity in their outlook, they may even feel quite troubled by his character and what he goes through. It presents a dark, grim (no pun intended), not-necessarily-happy-ever-after version of several old tales, ranging from ancient myths and the annals of the Roman Empire to Rumpelstiltskin, Red Riding Hood, and the Goose Girl. In the Crooked Man, it features a character so comprehensively evil, so gleefully devoted to the suffering of others, that the idea of his existence may sicken you. And in David it presents a hero whose blemishes of character are matched only by the bittersweetness of his fate. It may take a mature reader to forgive David his faults and appreciate how his character grows to the stature of a true hero. It may take the heart of a child to feel the full impact of the lessons David learns. I could have made good use of this book around 1985, when I was about David’s age and shared some of his issues, such as getting along with stepparents and half-siblings, and not letting anger and grief get in the way of love and happiness. From somewhat farther along, I saw David and looked back through him at myself with a mixture of sorrow and warmth. I suspect there are more people today than ever before who, for their own reasons, would be moved by a book like this.
David is an English boy at the time of World War II. He has plenty of personal troubles. He is shattered by his mother’s death. He is angry at his father for marrying again. He refuses to accept his stepmother Rose and half-brother Georgie as part of his family. He takes refuge in books, especially fairy tales and myths. They speak to him with an intensity that becomes downright disturbing. It isn’t just the books on his own shelves that he hears whispering to him. He even hears the books in his psychiatrist’s office muttering, making possible a scene that makes me smile every time I remember it. He hears his dead mother’s voice calling to him. And now someone from his dreams, someone from the world inside the books in his bedroom, has come out into reality: the Crooked Man, who has some sinister plan in store for David and his brother. Then one night when the far-away bombardment of the Battle of Britain comes as close as David’s own backyard, the boy is swept into a world where history is made up of the dark underside of all your favorite fairy tales.
In order to get back home, David must seek the wisdom of an old king whose rule is failing, and whose Book of Lost Things is supposed to hold the answer to many questions. But on the way to the king’s castle, David meets some terrifying and horrifying things. Notice how those two words mean different things. Terrifying, for example, are the Loups: wolves who are gradually becoming more like men and women, but who are just as willing to rip your throat out as ever. Horrifying, on the other hand, are beings like the woman who cuts people’s heads off and attaches them to the bodies of animals, so she can hunt them like game. The enemies David faces range from the merely scary (but very scary!) to the downright sickening, things you may shudder to think about long after you’ve finished the book. This is, after all, the type of magical world that makes the worst fears of visitors from our world come hideously, heinously true. It turns out that the Loups represent the worst fears of the king, who was once a boy like David and who made an awful sacrifice to become what he is now. And David, it seems, is being groomed to take the king’s place—a swap that the Crooked Man wants for the vilest reason you can imagine, and that relies on the vilest motives in David’s character.
Just getting to where he can find out all this will require David to face his own worst fear, as well as the nastiest possible version of “The Sleeping Beauty,” Robert Browning’s poem “Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Three Billy-Goats Gruff,” and so on. He will see mayhem and bloodshed, lose friends in a gruesome way, and experience a dark and deadly temptation. It’s a fairly steady march from one horror to another, but it’s not without lighter moments, such as the episode where David meets an awful Snow White and seven put-upon, communist dwarfs. Along the way, David begins to put grief and jealousy behind him, and to become a man. The difference this makes changes both worlds for him, and what happens afterward is both so truthful and so painful that you might almost miss the paradox wherein David “wrote a book. He called it The Book of Lost Things, and the book that you are holding is the book that he wrote.”
Irish author John Connolly gives a distinctively dark and scary spin to many familiar old stories. I’m not quite convinced that he has done a good thing by them. In a sense, his retellings of fairy tales could be read as undermining the lessons about heroism and virtue that they promote. But remember, too, that the world David enters in this book has been distorted by the evil power of the Crooked Man, and that as David transforms himself into a true hero, he also changes the storybook world around him. Reality, however, remains persistently realistic. It is finally the role of the stories David loves, and of his story, not to help us escape from the vicissitudes of real life, but to learn to deal with it better. Mr. Connolly’s solution is without God and without faith, which I regret as one who has faith in God; but somehow it has a heaven, and it has secrets that are not to be revealed until after one’s death, and it acknowledges the power of story and imagination in defiance of naked reason. With respect to it as a book that made me laugh, cry, and reflect deeply, I must finally set my quibbles aside and say: This was an excellent book.
Connolly’s other novels include the Charlie Parker fantasy-mysteries, whose twelfth installment is coming up in 2014. The first book in that series is Every Dead Thing. He has also penned a young-adult trilogy titled “Samuel Johnson vs. the Devil,” beginning with The Gates; a spooky-looking novel titled Bad Men; a variety of creepy short stories and novellas; and, with co-author Jennifer Ridyard, at least the first book (Conquest) of a projected trilogy titled “Chronicles of the Invaders.” These look like a promising new world for me to explore. You’re welcome to come along!