I love stories. From a young age, I’ve loved listening and reading them, as a child who was never terribly inclined towards sports or other activities. From a very young age, I have been fairly shy around other people, instead usually to turn to books for company – this is not to say that I’ve been antisocial all my life – as people often let me down or disappoint far more than books do. It’s with this basis that I love our ability to imagine.
While stopping by the bookstore recently, I came across an intriguing book – The Book of Lost Things, by John Connelly – and armed with a coupon e-mailed to me that day, I bought it, and found that it was one of the better fantasy books that I’ve read recently, and has reminded me of my simple love for stories, which this book is largely based around – a love for stories and the limits of imagination.
The book’s premise is fairly similar to one of my favorite films, Pan’s Labyrinth, which came out in 2007. David, a young English boy in 1939, has had a troubled life – his mother passed away from a wasting illness, and his father shortly fell for another woman, Rose, who bore him a son. David is resentful of this new family, and grows angry at the divided attention and the supposed replacement of his mother. He soon experiences a sort of episode – a blackout – and when he recovers, he begins to hear books whispering to one another. At this point, the London Blitz is well underway, and when trying to run away, a German bomber crashes near his house, and David is thrust into a fantasy world.
This is the interesting part of the book, and where there are a lot of parallels to Pan’s Labyrinth, but also to other well known stories, such as C.S. Lewis‘s Narnia series, as well as Grimm’s Fairy Tales and even Life on Mars. Throughout the book, the reader is never entirely sure as to whether David has really been thrust into an alternate world, populated by fantastic creations, or whether he is lying injured, much as Sam Tyler is in the TV show, or even it the entire experience is a sort of psychotic break, a device that David utilizes to escape from a world that he hates so much.
The ability to hear books whisper to one another is a fun concept, and is helps to reinforce what happens to David goes through. In this world, we come across a number of fairly familiar stories or concepts as David journeys onwards in an attempt to find his lost mother, but later, to return home. Various incarnations of the tales, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, the heroic knight, werewolves and vampires make their appearances, often with far more brutal and violent twists that are more reminiscent of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales than their sanitized Disney versions. (However, the Seven Dwarves as a sort of communistical band who felt that they were repressed by the Capitalistic classes is downright hilarious) Essentially, this world of David’s has been created from within his own knowledge of stories, a creation of his own imagination, one that is borne out of a sort of self-realization and psychology that helps mend his own hurt nature.
The story elements, upon looking back, are really quite simple, and throughout, I found myself catching what would happen next and realizing where the plot was going next, which gives the book an air of predictability to anyone who’s listened to enough bedtime stories. But where that might have annoyed me in most books, it really didn’t here – this was a story with a good character arc, one that is reminiscent of the classic stories of the growth of a hero – a brash, angry young man who sets off to prove himself to the world, only to discover his own nature, and thus the character growth beings until you reach the happily ever after at the end. However, while there are many elements to this story that are much like the fairy tales that we are all familiar with, it feels far more realistic. The epilogue, of sorts, recounts the remainder of David’s days, in a way that really doesn’t fit with the rest of the tales that I’ve come across, giving the antagonist – the Crooked Man – a grain of truth to his predictions and proclamations.
While the book is fairly clear about what the entire experience was, it can easily fit into any of the three descriptions – David fell into a coma, he created the world because of trauma or he really was catapulted into this other world. The ambiguity of this is a very nice element, while one is clearly correct, they all are essentially part of what happened. Looking back at this, it really doesn’t matter to the overall part of the story – this story is more about the arc of the hero, self-realization and growth to beyond his angry and frustrated youth.
What the book really feels like, now that I’ve finished (and my copy was deceptively long, with a sort of notes and interview that takes up the last hundred or so pages of the novel) is an homage to the classic stories. There’s a grain of humor and twisting of some of the classics that only a modern author could get away with, but what it shows, most of all, that these stories and one’s imagination are still relevant and important. There are values to these stories that still permeate to the beginnings of the Second World War, and indeed, to the present moment, where some of the basic elements of good and evil are laid out. This book is about stories, and like David finds, how they can talk to you.