It’s been about 8 or so years since I first read The Book of Lost Things. What this re-read has nicely demonstrated is that memory plays tricks on you. I remember this book as being a sad story which incorporated fairy tales and aspects of World War II. In fact, it is a heart-breaking, beautiful and brutal love letter to books that subverts fairy tales to show how complex humans are.
When I was reading Connelly, I was struck by how beautiful his writing is (“She was night without the promise of dawn, darkness without hope of light” – has the Big Bad ever been described thus?) and how there is so much packed into the 348 pages of my edition. Almost every other page there was something I wanted to make note of. Either a phrase or a passage or idea. The story begins with the horrible premise of a young boy, David, trying to save his terminally ill mother from leaving him by modifying his behaviour; making sure he does everything in even numbers, for example. Connelly shows how the strong their relationship is during the early pages through both their love of books. “…although both were lost in their own individual worlds, they shared the same space and time”. Of course, when she dies David’s father finds love elsewhere. Before long, a grieving and guilt-ridden David has a half-brother getting all the attention. He finds solace in whispering books. (I love the way the books mock David’s doctor when he’s wrong. And Connelly’s description of how a child feels on dealing with a academic is awesome). When he’s transported into a world of fairy tales, he must battle some familiar foes and makes some interesting alliances in order to get back home.
What I especially liked is Connelly’s subversions. In the magical kingdom, a new breed of half-wolves half-men are the result of Red Riding Hood’s sexual perversions (“’Lovely wolf’, she whispered. ‘You have nothing to fear from me.”). Meanwhile, ‘Hansel’ is a little boy who cries while his sister provides – and they punish the woman in the candy house, before ‘Gretel’ abandons her brother. However, these subversions also bring about Connelly’s only real misstep. After the heart-break of David’s real life, he meets a Woodsman. It appears that the adult is torn apart by wolves. David then meets a collective of dwarves and a mean, obese Snow White. The novel descends into a darkly comic treatise on the oppression of the worker. But David is soon back on his journey and witnesses a Huntress slay a deer-girl. The Huntress then gets her comeuppance in the creepiest manner imaginable. The tonal shift from brutal horror and back again for the diversion into Snow White’s world sits uncomfortably with me. But maybe the horrors throughout the book were a bit too much and some levity was required.
I’d also mis-remembered Connelly’s novel as being more of a young adult story. So while it features the emotional growth of a 12 year old boy, this is no book for kids or even young adults. This is an adult book with adult themes and some nasty scenes.
When I first read this book, I hadn’t read all of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. I have now, and I hadn’t equated the character of Roland here with King’s tale. Both are a tribute in a way to Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning. Which I’ve not read. In this story, Roland is almost unbearably lonely and has little faith in humanity. Maybe he’s right…There is a theme of the nastiness of war that runs through The Book of Lost Things: in our world it is WWII, while in the magical world, it is the gathering of the wolves (“So you left behind one war, only to find yourself in the midst of another”). Death is unbelievably horrendous in all its forms here. Even the bad guy – the Crooked Man – is only trying to stay alive (although is also incredibly evil). Only the death of a missing girl, Anna, has any real positivity.
I felt the end was a little rushed. The Book of Lost Things isn’t a long novel, but when brave David defeats his enemies and his lessons are learned, the Woodsman unexpectedly reappears and before we know, David is back in ‘our’ world. It was also fairly obvious who the king was and how it reign came to pass. The end of the magical journey happens to quickly without the weight it earned from the rest of the novel.
There is real melancholy and depth and sorrow here. Pain is real and is felt, demonstrably, by the characters here. When David finds Roland’s body, he bends over in agony. Heart-wrenching. Much more than I recalled. However, the title should give it away. The things lost as a child when we finally must grow up. Life is almost unbearably tough at times, and not at all fair. When David’s story concluded, pretty much as the Crooked Man had foresaw, I had a lump in my throat.
I’m very happy that I re-read The Book of Lost Things and I hope that my memory of it remains true. Life is hard. Death is horrible. But Connelly loves books and stories and maybe they are what we need. This ain’t no kids book of fairy tales, but a brilliant, beautiful and brutal work of magic.