This is one of those books that adults will appreciate just as much as children, if for different reasons. Adults will admire the intricate interweaving of myth, more recent fiction and original imagination to create a powerful story that can be read on several different levels. Children will relish the challenge of encountering a writer who understands they’re really far tougher than so many adults will allow.
Children have always had to deal with loss and as the book opens David has to face the death of his beloved mother. She’s the most important person in his world, not least because they share a love of stories of knights and soldiers and dragons and sea-beasts. As she sickens, they re-read favourite folk tales and fairy tales together. As David struggles with the awful inevitability hanging over them both, he tries to turn her fate away with repetitious routines. If he can just do things right, without error or variation, maybe she will live. But of course, she dies. David is bereft and more, he feels betrayed by the stories. Good has not been rewarded. Real life has cheated him. And real life goes inexorably on. Soon, too soon, David’s father remarries. Soon there’s a baby and David is taken unwillingly to Rose’s old family home in the country where they’ll all be living. Only now David is hearing the voices of his mother’s books as he cherishes them for her sake. Then he begins to hear the whispers of those tucked away in the attic room at Rose’s house.
The subtle skill of John Connolly’s writing is impressive as David’s view and thus our understanding of his world gradually opens out from the initial tight focus on his dying mother. Readers of all ages are going to empathise with David, inexorably drawn deeper into the story as the child’s alienation and bemusement is vividly written. By way of contrast, the matter-of-fact narrative passages reflect the unsympathetic adult world surrounding him. Through these opening chapters we learn through incidental detail that the book is set in the years before and during Second World War. Rose’s family home is safer than London during the Blitz and David’s father, an academic now works on some kind of code breaking, somewhere north of London. Adult readers can guess at a fuller story here. Children won’t care, any more than David does. As the picture broadens, the viewpoint remains, consistently, convincingly, David’s.
If it comes as a surprise that the book isn’t in fact set in the present day, that reminds us all the more forcefully that human nature and the trials of life haven’t actually changed that much. Children then and now have had to deal with step-parents and well-meaning attempts to help them through grief. David is taken to a psychiatrist. He doesn’t admit to hearing the voices of the books but co-operates willingly enough when he’s asked to draw pictures for Dr. Moberley. Now we do see a distance between then and now and not for the last time. Here David’s pictures show an unusual focus on detail that must surely suggest the possibility of an autistic spectrum disorder to the contemporary adult reader. This may or may not answer the puzzle of what ultimately happens to David. It all depends how far you’re prepared to go into the world of the imagination.
As far as David is concerned, the world of the imagination is increasingly impinging on his own. The books in Rose’s house have strange hand-written additions and variations on the fairy tales he knows, as dark as anything the Brothers Grimm originally wrote. He learns these books belonged to Rose’s uncle Jonathan, who disappeared as a child, taking a small girl called Anna with him. The books had been bought from a strange shop in London that turned out to have vanished itself when Jonathan’s father went back to find it. David begins to have strange waking dreams, where he hears his mother calling to him, where he encounters a strange character, the Crooked Man. Then he begins to see the Crooked Man outside his dreams, at the windows of the ivy-covered house when he is out in the garden. He becomes convinced there’s a way through to the world of these dreams, where his mother isn’t dead. One fateful night, after a catastrophic row with Rose and the crash of an enemy plane, he finds the way through in the ivy-covered sunken garden.
On the other side of the wall, David finds an extremely strange, often nightmarish, occasionally surreal world. An axe-wielding woodsman initially saves him from a predatory wolf but Little Red Riding Hood didn’t know the half of it if this place is to be believed. The wolves are changing into wolf-men, loups, led by the most dangerous of all, Leroi. The old king of this land is fading and Leroi intends to rule in his stead. And David is trapped here, now that the fissure to his own world has closed. The woodsman can only suggest he asks the King for help. The King has a book, the Book of Lost Things, which apparently holds all manner of knowledge. So David sets out on a quest, that brings him face to face with trolls and monsters, radical reinterpretations of ancient and modern fairy tales, and knights errant whose devotion to each other shines a whole new light on chivalric love.
Finally David finds the King and realises he must confront the Crooked Man’s vile deceits with no one to rely on but himself, drawing on every lesson about this world and his own that he has he learned on his journey. A word of reassurance; this is all a world away from those clumsily written children’s books that seek to instil improving morals and only succeed in boring adults and patronising children. David’s struggles as he meets physical and mental challenges will wholly engage the reader. Crucially, John Connolly doesn’t shrink from portraying the evil that humanity is capable of and that we ignore at our peril. To my mind, the whole story makes a powerful argument that it is knowledge, not ignorance, which will save far more children than merely David. Nor is there any cosy consolation in the final resolution where life and death are inextricably entwined, right up to the last-page twist of the conclusion.
The tale of a child removed from the dangers of London in World War II who finds a route to a magical world inevitably demands comparisons with Narnia. A boy struggling to come to terms with the loss of a parent and finding a fissure in his reality that leads him on a life-changing journey is going to remind many readers of Will’s adventures in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Any world where fables have a life of their own, where stories can manipulate reality and be manipulated in turn, is going to have particular resonances for readers of Terry Pratchett, especially where comfortable fiction is rudely shattered by harsh reality. The notion that our nursery tales and rhymes are mere remnants of longer, more intricate stories may even call to mind Tolkien’s fuller version of the tale of the “Man in the Moon”. There are echoes of all these things and many more, from ancient myths of ritual sacrifice to modern fables like The Wizard of Oz and Labyrinth. This story casts its own challenging light upon them all. None of that detracts from a wholly original and absorbing piece of writing, serving rather to add the levels of depth and complexity that make this such an enjoyably thought-provoking book. John Connolly is to be applauded for a remarkable achievement.
This review originally appeared in SF Revu.