Woohoo my first finished novel of 2015 and a start to my Reading Challenge!
This book was not what I expected. There was something very evocative and intriguing about both the title and cover – as well as the photographs inside. Almost all of which, according to the note appended to the novel, are genuine and authentic found photographs. I was expecting something haunting and thought provoking and this … wasn’t.
Now, I fully accept that my dissatisfaction with this book is probably in part because I misjudged the audience for it. But I think Ransom Riggs may have done the same. I had expected this to be an adult book and it’s not. Hence disappointment. But here’s the thing: as any cursory review of my blog will reveal, I have no problem with Young Adult books. I love Young Adult books and see no reason why they shouldn’t be included in the Booker Prize and Pulitzer Prizes. I mean, look at just three: My Sister Lives On The Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Anything by Patrick Ness. Sublime.
So, the shift in gear in my expectation from Adult to Young Adult was not the source of my problem. It just wasn’t hugely good.
Here’s the premise: Jacob Portman was brought up on his grandfather’s tales of monsters and children with strange powers. He believed these to be fairytales or repressed memories of Nazi oppression until he nearly witnessed one of these monsters murdering his grandfather. A series of clues lead to an island off Wales where his grandfathers fairytales suddenly prove themselves true.
There are echoes here of the X-Men’s School For Gifted Children, of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts… It’s all a little familiar. A little derivative.
I also had a problem with the narrative voice. It is a first person narrative from the point of view of a teenager. And the language just wasn’t right for that voice. Some very long, tortuously clumsy sentences such as
I was following my dad into our suspiciously dark living room as he muttered things like “What a shame we didn’t plan anything for your birthday” and “Oh well, there’s always next year,” when all the lights flooded on to reveal streamers, balloons, and a motley assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins I rarely spoke to – anyone my mother could cajole into attending – and Rick, whom I was surprised to see lingering near the punch bowl, looking comically out of place in a studded leather jacket.
Wow. That’s nearly 100 words. Including an Oxford comma. And a whom.
It is just clumsy and typical of a tendency towards over long sentences and oddly formal language. Riggs just doesn’t seem very good at voices and I wish his editor had picked up the phone and said “Ever thought of the third person?” Here’s another e ample which jarred with me. It’s from the finale after a life-and-death battle
“When we leave here, this loop will close behind us. It’s possible you may never be able to return to the time you came from. At least not easily.”
“There’s nothing for me there,” I said quickly. “Even if I could go back, I’m not sure I’d want to.”
I’m sorry! What? His mum, whom he left in America? His dad, who brought him to the Welsh island in the first place being stranded alone with the horror of having somehow lost his son?
No voice and character are not Riggs’ strength! There was almost nothing to distinguish any of the peculiar children save for their power. And the fact that Jacob hooks up with his grandfather’s ex-girlfriend. As you do.
Don’t even get me started on Miss Peregrine’s interminable info dump exposition about peculiar children, ymbrynes and time loops.
Putting all that to one side, though, the conclusion had promise. Escaping from time loop to time loop allowing for a myriad of different historical and geographical world’s to be explored. Again, it’s nothing shatteringly novel – the anomalies in BBC’s Primeval spring to mind – but promising. This was Riggs’ debut novel and I may be persuaded to delve into the sequel Hollow City. Maybe.
Anyway I shall conclude with a selection of the photographs which litter the book. They are undoubtedly cool even if they lack the power of the illustrations in Ness’ A Monster Calls. I wonder how much of the planning of the story derived from the necessity to shoehorn in these pictures….