The Book of Lost Things
a novel by John Connolly
InstaRating: 5 (out of 5)
This is simply a good book. I would not have thought anything would rank up next to a new book by Guy Gavriel Kay (Ysabel, which I’ll review some other time), but this one easily meets that standard. One of life’s greatest treasures, for me, is a book that compels me to keep reading at an ever-more-breakneck pace. I love a book that gives me the sensation that I’m missing details because the vision is so extravagant and the journey so enthralling that there just isn’t time to savor everything. I love a book so good that, around page 50, I start calculating how long I have to wait so that it will be fresh when I re-read it.
A short summary: David is a pre-teen in World War II Britain, who loses his mother to an unnamed lingering disease and his father (as David sees it) to a stepmother and half-brother. David starts to hear books whisper to him and then, in an ancient house, hears his mother’s voice calling to him. He ventures into the garden just as a Luftewaffe bomber crashes, propelling him into an alternate world where strange versions of well-known fairy tales seem to be true. He meets a kindly Woodsman and a questing knight, but is menaced by the half-wolf Loups, by harpies, trolls, and above all by the Crooked Man, an indistinct but terrifying menace who wants, for reasons left unexplained, for David to tell him the name of his half-brother. At the suggestion of the Woodsman, David travels east toward the castle of the ailing King and his magic Book of Lost Things. What he discovers — there and along the way, in the King and in himself — ends up changing everything.
More detail will inevitably involve spoilers, so I’ll hide them below the fold. If you’re looking for whether this book is a good read, but you don’t want to know the ending, stop here and take my word for it: This is a good book. It will richly reward you for reading it. Connolly shows himself to be a master of atmosphere and foreshadowing. If you need to hear more, and don’t mind knowing what’s coming, read on…
No fooling… there be spoilers here.
Connolly’s greatest strength is his command of atmosphere. This book really pulls you in and makes you live in its world. The landscape is both majestic and bleak, and like all good High Fantasy, there is no doubt that the physical world reflects the underlying moral order: The King is weak (both physically and morally) and the land suffers. Bizarre new creatures, such as the Loups and the worm-like Beast, have begun to plague the country and change its very nature. The light is bleak and dim, even at highest noon. Eventually winter comes on and deadening snow blankets everything — as much as I’ve ever seen, Connolly competently weaves despair into the very texture of his prose.
There’s really only one character, David. Everyone else is a sketch, sometimes a caricature. This is in part deliberate, because David’s new world is clearly woven from fairy tales. The characters are expected to be stock and archetypical. Throughout the novel Connolly interleaves several tales that are almost, but not quite, traditional fairy tales. For example, the story of Little Red Riding Hood ends quite differently in this world (and not entirely in a family-friendly way). And his spin on Cinderella and the Seven Dwarves is outright hilarious. The Dwarfs especially hit the mark as a Monty Pythonesque communist collective.
This is explicitly a quest journey and the point is David’s transition from boy to man (commented on explicitly several times by the narrator). He starts off as mildly unlikable, a boy who has (admittedly) suffered some terrible things but who is unable to move past them. During his journey he is forced to rely on himself more and more and also to come to grips with what he wants, what he’s lost, and what he might be missing in his blind searching for a past that’s gone.
Connolly is quite coy about whether David’s new land “really” exists or not. Certainly, the transitions between our world and the fictional one all seem to imply that he is merely entering a delusional state. He never carries anything from the fictional world to ours, indeed even to the point of re-donning the pajamas and dressing gown he’d discarded upon his arrival. He wakes up in a hospital bed, having been “discovered” in a coma. In the end, the reader is left with an ambiguity worthy of Stephen R. Donaldson and the Thomas Covenant Chronicles — and just as unimportant to the larger meaning.
The book’s major weakness is that David’s overall arc is clear from the outset and remains dismayingly predictable. Who the King is and his connection to the Crooked Man, though coming as a surprise to David, is blindingly obvious no later than a third of the way into the book. The ultimate resolution is pretty much what one expects. Perhaps this too is a facet of the heavy integration of the fairy tale milieu into the story’s structure.
The pleasant surprise was the incredibly detailed backstory eventually given for the Crooked Man. Connolly here invents a modern yet timeless bogeyman that could serve to terrify generations of young readers. Although unique in literature, I think, the Crooked Man easily fits in the rogues’ gallery of all the dark and disturbing Others out there in the pages of fairy tales. He is genuinely creepy and menacing — and, amazing in a world grown too jaded for such things, he is convincingly evil. Without getting absolutist or black-and-white, Connolly manages to come down squarely on the question of whether evil exists.
A warning to those looking to gift this to younger readers: There is some sexuality in the book, some potentially-controversial topics (such as gender identity), and much uncensored violence. The beasts are truly beastly; and not all the people are much better. Young children could easily take away nightmares from this book, not least because Connolly is explicitly focusing on themes (such as death, abandonment, and aloneness) that most upset children.
This really is a book I look forward to re-reading and, perhaps, passing on to my younger relatives. It’s the sort of book I thrilled to discover when I was younger. In the media-saturated and ink-drowning world we occupy today, I’m not sure any book is “destined to become a beloved classic”, but if any book is, it’s this one.