Since I knock it down your throats all the time, you also probably know that I love me some fairy tale retellings, and that's sorta kinda what this book is. But not really. It's the story of David, a boy whose mother has died, and he's left to cope with a new stepmother, a new baby brother, and a father who's largely occupied by his job as a code breaker for the British during WWII. David seeks refuge in his books, and before long he begins to hear them speaking, muttering, and generally chattering. His bedroom in his stepmother's big old house belonged to her uncle who disappeared when he was about David's age. The lost boy was also a lover of books, and Rose (the stepmother) thinks he'll like the room and uses it as something of a peace offering. David begins to see a "crooked man" lurking here and there...through the window to his room namely...and he hears his mother's voice calling to him from a crack in the yard's sunken garden. One night he decides to investigate and finds himself in an alternative universe peppered with fairy tale elements.
In David's new world he discovers a kind woodsman, a pack of bloodthirsty man-wolves, trolls, harpies, a knight named Roland, briar-covered castles, and sundry elements from folk tales, fairy stories, legends, and mythology. David must navigate his way to the king of the land to access the Book of Lost Things, and ultimately find his way back home. With the Crooked Man butting in all the way.
What makes this book really interesting is that it's not a retelling of any particular tale, but an amalgamation of the stories David would've read in his room. I liked the way Connolly played with standard fairy tales, changed them to meet his needs, and subverted some of my expectations.
One thing I think it's important to point out, is that this book is definitely not for children. That is, I think many children and young adults would enjoy the story, but there are quite a few elements that seem tailored specifically for adults. For one, the story is quite gory. Lots of bodies hanging, entrails, decomposition. In an odd way I really like that, for it harkens back to those original, very grim, tales that were not meant for children. Folk tales, not for the kiddos so much!
There are elements of sexuality, horror, the supernatural, and fantasy. It's a nice mix, and through it all the focus is really on David's coming of age, his dealings with grief, and his ability to adjust and cope with a new family structure. In the end it's a very human story as opposed to a fairy story. The fairy tale part is just a vehicle to a better understanding of David's mental and emotional state.
Finally, one of my very favorite parts of the whole book came after the story was done. I originally thought Connolly had included a set of the fairy tales he drew from. Given that I've read most of them, I thought that would be a worthless section for me, but as it turns out, Connolly includes a bit of commentary before each tale to illustrate and explain how he used that story, what role it played in David's larger experience, and some background on the tale. It was VERY interesting to read the author's thought process as it related to bringing all these threads together.
If you're interested in a sample passage, here's a particularly funny bit. To contextualize, the dwarfs are hilarious and disgruntled. Snow White is a horrible bitch that filches from the dwarfs, eats their food, and is generally very unlikeable. The dwarfs are the ones who've tried to kill her, if only it weren't for that damn prince! This brief passage is one of the dwarfs (Brother Number One) telling David about their attempt to bump off Snow White:
Anyway, we feed her an apple: chomp-chomp, snooze-snooze, weep-weep, 'poor Snow White, we-will-miss-her-so-but-life-goes-on.' We lay her out on a slab, surround her with flowers and little weeping bunny rabbits, you know, all the trimmings, then along comes a bloody prince and kisses her. We don't even have a prince around here. He just appeared out of nowhere on a bleeding white horse. Next thing you know he's climbed off and he's onto Snow White like a whippet down a rabbit hole. Don't know what he thought he was doing, gadding about randomly kissing strange women who happened to be sleeping at the time.I would recommend this book to any and everybody. When I think of it, I'm tempted to draw some correlation to The Book Thief, not necessarily for the subject matter, but it has some of that same emotional atmosphere, and it's quite a complicated, rollicking tale. It rides the fence between a story for adults and a story for children, and it was a stellar read.
What to read next! Oh, I know, THE HOST!!! Watch out, Stephenie Meyer, here I come!