The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly

Atria, 2006

Not a fairy-tale for the faint of heart, this book veers more toward a Grimm narrative, rather than a Disney one. Young David, who has just lost his mother and is slowly being overlooked by his quickly-remarried father, finds solace  in his books. That is, until they start talking to and poking fun at him. Thus marks the beginning of a slow cross-over between two worlds. David’s reality seeps into his imagination, which ends up taking him to a land that’s not quite either.

I’m not sure what drew me to this book. I recognized Connolly’s name from that section at the grocery store where soft-covered mystery novels are sold next to Us Weekly. In the past I’ve generally steered clear of such authors, keeping my snobbery for literature untainted by denying myself the pleasure of sensationalist serial fiction. But pleasure it is. It turns out this particular author knows how to weave a pretty gripping story. It had also been a while since I’d read an adult fantasy, so that was fun.

Things I liked about the book: David’s well-drawn adolescent emotions. His mother has died and been replaced, and although he wants to please his father and try his best, things aren’t going so well with the new stepmother. Rose herself was also complex, not really evil, even though it would be easier to see her that way. The real villain, however, was what made the book. “The Crooked Man” is, without question, the scariest character I’ve ever read. He is the stuff of nightmares, and everything about him, down to his name, is twisted.

There was also an episodic nature to this book that worked well within the fairy-tale framework. Connolly’s storytelling felt somehow detached, and as we moved from scene to scene, character to new character, I was glad for it. The pace felt like a classic fairy-tale, but the events were much more horrific. If they’d been told any other way, it would have been too graphic (I’d argue some of it already was).

Things I disliked about the book: Its graphic horror. Think back to the original ending of Snow White. The evil queen is forced to dance in shoes filled with hot coals until she dies. In one version of The Little Mermaid, her tongue is actually cut out of her mouth. Red Riding Hood gets more gory with each retelling. These are true fairy-tales, and Connolly’s is right in there with the most violent of them. I felt slightly nauseated reading about the practices of a diabolical huntress and the secret lairs of The Crooked Man. Still, it’s not as if they didn’t fit. This is a dark story, and each character played a role in its dark telling. Consider this your warning!

I also didn’t understand why the fantastical side of the story was back-dropped by WWII England. It wasn’t a big enough part of the story that there should be a war element. Even as David fought his own battles in the magical land, it seemed only incidental that there should be a war raging in his real homeland.

I also had a problem with the ending. It was a little neat for my liking, and actually pretty unsatisfying. Rarely does a novel need a “this is what happened years later” chapter to cap it all off, least of all when the last three chapters could have sufficed as an appropriate ending. That said, The Book of Lost Things was largely enjoyable. It’s dark and creepy, but has heartwarming moments that make it worth it. It’s rich with meaning and special in that it feels both quaint and epic at the same time.

If it taught me anything, it’s that I shouldn’t be so snobby in the future.

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