Irish author John Connolly is perhaps best known for his crime stories that hover on the edges between traditional detective stories and supernatural horror, but with The Book of Lost Things, Connolly travels deeper into fantasy-land, reinventing age-old fairy tales in a beautiful and poignant story of childhood and loss.
Set in England during the beginning of World War II, The Book of Lost Things is the story of the 12 year-old David and his struggle to come to terms with the death of his mother, his father’s quick re-marriage and the birth of a baby brother. David is especially close to his mother, sharing her love of literature. Her illness and death is an earth-shattering experience for him, and it is this loss that the whole narrative revolves around, which is already hinted at in the very beautiful opening paragraph:
“Once upon a time – for that is how all stories should begin – there was a boy who lost his mother.
He had, in truth, been losing her for a very long time. The disease that was killing her was a creeping, cowardly thing, a sickness that ate away at her from the inside, slowly consuming the light within so that her eyes grew a little less bright with each passing day, and her skin a little more pale.
And as she was stolen away from him, piece by piece, the boy became more and more afraid of finally losing her entirely. He wanted her to stay. He had no brothers and no sisters, and while he loved his father it would be true to say that he loved his mother more. He could not bear to think of a life without her.”
David’s mother has shared her love of fairy tales with him, and she has taught him that these old stories are important. The fairy tales have a special power. They are stories that come “alive” in the telling and they have the power to take root in and transform the reader, and the power to create their own reality. After his mother’s death, these ancient stories begin to intrude upon David’s reality. Books start to whisper to him and he receives episodic visitations from the Crooked Man, a strange and frightening figure.
About six months after his mother’s death, David’s father introduces him to Rose. She works at the hospice where David’s mother ended her life, and it quickly becomes apparent that she is in a relationship with his father, a relationship that most likely began while his mother still lived. David’s father and Rose marry not long after this introduction, she gives birth to a son, Georgie, and the new family moves into an old country house that belongs to Rose’s family. This house contains its own tragic story, a story that becomes intertwined with David’s. In his new room David finds a book with dark and horrifying fairy tales, a book that once belonged to Rose’s uncle Jonathan, who, as a child, disappeared with his foster-sister Anna many years ago, never to be found again.
David is both attracted and repulsed by the tales in Jonathan’s book, and the narrative subtly builds an atmosphere of quite menace as David continues to hear the books and see the Crooked Man while he at the same time clashes repeatedly with his step-mother. He hates his new life; he hates his step-mother and his half-brother. He misses his mother, and his father who is emotionally absent. And the reality of war is ever present as the backdrop of this more intimate battleground of familial conflict. This atmosphere of conflict and menace comes to a head when the war in the family and the war in the world briefly collide. David’s resentment of Rose’s intrusion into his family finally explodes in a heated argument, and the very same night, a bomber airplane crashes in the garden. At precisely this point, the membranes of David’s reality violently ruptures, tearing him away from his known world and catapulting him into a strange and frightening place where he hears his mothers voice, calling for him to save her, to bring her back.
David finds himself in a strange forest where the trees bleed and the flowers have the faces of dead children, and where blood-thirsty wolves walk and speak like men. Aided by a woodsman, David sets out to find the king of the land, who owns The Book of Lost Things – an artefact that might help him find his way home again. David has to negotiate many horrifying dangers during his quest, sometimes aided by different helpers, sometimes alone – all the time haunted by his mother’s voice, and shadowed by the mysterious Crooked Man, who wants something from him. When he finally reaches the king’s castle and finds the Book of Lost Things, David learns that things are not what they seem, and that he has to make a choice that might have severe consequences for himself and his family.
In The Book of Lost Things John Connolly engages with several different, yet interrelated literary traditions. His novel is structured as a portal-quest fantasy in the tradition of C.S. Lewis, where the protagonist enters parallel world, but the world David enter into draws extensively upon the tradition of fairy tales with an emphasis on their darker aspects, touching upon the horror genre. Connolly handles these different aspects extremely well, weaving them into a coherent whole with an emotional underpinning that is both poignant and psychologically truthful.
The main part of the narrative takes place in the parallel world that David enters, but Connolly manages to keep up a continuous doubt about its reality. It is a world that is both real and tangible, in the sense that David interacts with it, yet it is also dream-like and hallucinatory, its elements made up well-known fairy tales re-told and re-invented, mixed up with elements from other books that David has been in contact with. Thus David’s encounter with a group of dwarves living with a petty house-tyrant in a dysfunctional domestic situation offers a rather funny and whimsical interpretation of the fairy tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves filtered through a text book on Communism! Thus, the kingdom that David journeys through is in many ways his own creation, an amalgam of all the stories he knows, mixed and reordered into a new configuration.
In a sense, John Connolly highlights the workings of the traditional quest fantasy by making explicit the fact that the external quest often stands as a metaphor for the internal journey of the protagonist. David’s quest through his dark and twisted fantasy-land is driven by his need to work through his grief, to accept the loss of his mother and the presence of his new brother – a need that is not met in his own reality due to the emotional absence of his father. But at the same time, Connolly leaves the reader in doubt about the actual presence of this fairy tale parallel world. It both is and is not real, for The Book of Lost Things is also a story about the power of stories.
The Book of Lost Things is brilliant take on a modern fairy tale – dark and scary but also beautiful and moving in its depiction of a child’s loss, grief and ambivalent jealousy as is it filtered through the fantastic. The emotional underpinning of Connolly’s story is its most powerful element, but his re-workings of popular fairy tales also work very well. Their emphasis on the horrific touches upon all that is scary, while at the same time addressing the fact that most of the fairy tales we know today were heavily edited in the 19th century. The paperback edition of Connolly’s novel comes with an appendix, where the author explains the origins of each of the tales he re-invents in the novel, accompanied by a reprint of the “original” tales (from textual sources such as the Brothers Grimm). The appendix is also the only gripe I have with this otherwise wonderful novel as Connolly unfortunately not only explains the origins of each tale but also proceeds to explain their use in his narrative, thus essentially interpreting his own work for the reader. This is a rather heavy-handed move, but since it is located in an appendix, it can be skipped.