Thursday, July 14, 2016

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children
Ransom Riggs

Author Ransom Riggs has collected odd old photos for much of his life. He and his editor thought it would be interesting to base a novel around the pictures. That novel became Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever done a novel like this before, but the Surrealists and Dadaists illustrated some of their fictions with pre-existing engravings taken from old magazines and catalogs. The text/photo pairings in Miss Peregrine’s reminded me of Max Ernst’s illustrated novels and E.V. Lucas’ What A Life! That girl standing and floating on the cover of Riggs’ book grabbed me, and my liking for the book’s ancestors made me want to read about this peculiar home.

The novel usually follows this format: First, we’re introduced to significant points in the narrative. Then you turn the page and there are illustrations (sorry, vintage photos) showing you what the narrator just described. Each time a significant character, for instance, is introduced, you get to where you want to skip ahead and see the photo, asking yourself, “How will Riggs depict this with his stock of snaps?” It’s a pleasurable experience, this anticipating and gratifying, vaguely like the old interplay with conventional illustrations, but odder because you know the narrative has had to fit the picture rather than the other way round. But since Riggs chose the pics out of his collection of thousands, his freedom may not have been totally straightened. In any event, it all works, and it somehow makes the novel more real, in a surreal way.

But all that novelty wouldn’t matter much if the story wasn’t good. Fortunately, it is. It’s a tale that could have held its own even without the photos. It’s a story that starts with a teenage boy, Jacob, who is recounting how his mentally ill grandpa used to show him old photos of odd children when Jacob was a child. Grandpa always said these were proof that his tales of growing up in Wales were true, and Jacob believed him. Until he grew up. He’s so embarrassed now that he ever believed the stories about a fantastical island home for peculiar children off the coast of Wales. Then his grandpa is murdered and Jacob is set on a course that makes him wonder if the peculiar stories might be true in part, then might actually be basically, then… Then he has a breakdown. His psychiatrist thinks it’d be good if Jacob goes to Wales so he can see for himself that such things never happened. That trip doesn’t confirm the doctor’s reasoning. As events unfold, the reader is captivated by an unfolding Peculiar universe that dovetails with mythology, religion and all sorts of historical events. You won’t look at the Great Siberian Explosion in Tunguska the same way again. And if you never heard of that explosion, it won’t matter, because the narrative still works its spell. When it works its magic, it’s as if Peculiars have always existed and we never knew it. History, like vintage photos, confirms Peculiardom. Somewhat similarly, the narrative makes side glances to well-known fictions such as Lost Horizon, the Harry Potter series, superhero comics (especially X-Men; I had to have this one explained to me), The War Of The Worlds, and so on. None of this is showy. It’s all seamless and doesn’t slow down the pace, which is important since the book is, above all, a thriller. There are also romantic/sexual elements (PG; Jacob is inexperienced) and time travel factors (not in any way you might expect). Something for most, if not all, readers, but enough that it kept the book on bestseller lists for months. And that confirms that, despite my English major entreaties, this isn’t a heavily freighted book. It’s just the right weight for a teen novel that has adult appeal. Riggs’ editor told the author the book could go either way—teen or adult. The two agreed to go the teen route, but the adult pull shows that it really did end up having both kinds of readership. I’ve found out that two of my coworkers have read it, so there’s two adults for you there, and, since this is a library I’m talking about, there are doubtless more that I haven’t found out about. I never felt out of place reading it, although it had been a while since I’d read so much about retards, butts, being horny, and embarrassment. But then embarrassment is the great teen theme.

As I read the novel, I got interested in all the attendant matter, and soon discovered that Miss Peregrine’s is now Book 1 of a trilogy and that the movie of 1 is coming out in the fall, directed by Tim Burton. I don’t know if I’ll read the sequels or not, but I’m eagerly looking forward to the movie. Burton seems like a natural for it. Looking at stills on the movie website, the characters, with some inevitable Hollywood compromises (Miss Peregrine isn’t supposed to be a looker—she’s supposed to be dowdy) look mostly faithful to their book counterparts, the photos. It all started with the photos.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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