For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Our eight YA book is The Book of Lost Things by John Connelly and the review is written by Gwen Kerkhof Mogot.
Since a few months I am attending the YA-book club. YA-literature is a genre I am not thoroughly familiar with and these past few months I have been reading new and inspiring novels. This month, however, we read a book that I’ve read before. A young adult myself at the time, I bought The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly in a large bookshop in London during a school trip. Yes, London, it couldn’t get much cooler than that for my teenage book-obsessed self. Appealed by the red and black cover and the beautiful opening lines: “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.” Cliché, but not quite. And I think these lines are characteristic for the entire novel. The Book of Lost Things can be seen as a reworking of fairytales, which Connolly twists for his own purposes. But let me tell you what this novel is about…
On the eve of the Second World War, British twelve-year old David loses his mother to a long and lingering illness. In order to manage his fear and hoping to save his mother David has developed a form of OCD that requires him to fulfil a number of rituals each time he goes to bed or leaves the house. Surprisingly soon after his mother’s death, David’s father introduces Rose. David and his father move in with Rose and little George is born. David griefs and his fears grow. Is he replaceable, like his mother? He is seized by fits, which leave him unconscious for a while and books start to whisper to him, literally. In Rose’s house David inhabits the room of Jonathan, who disappeared many years ago when he was just as old as David. The whispering of the books and Jonathan’s disappearance are preludes to David’s own upcoming adventure. When the relationship with Rose becomes more difficult and London’s is bombed, David suffers from a fit. When he is recovered he hears his mother calling him. But the Crooked Man, a creature from a fairyland, plays tricks on him and seduces him inside fairyland. In this land David encounters many fairy tales that are not quite right: Snow White is an enormous woman who has rejected Prince Charming, Little Red Riding Hood has fallen in love with a wolf and created the evil Loups (half wolf, half man). To return to his own world David goes on a quest, but eventually he has to save fairyland. As it is a coming-of-age story David has to make the right choices, but the Crooked Man (a new interpretation of Rumpelstiltskin) is his strongest opponent.
Truth be told, when I read it right after I returned from London, I did not enjoy the novel very much. It was dark, but not quite dark enough. The Crooked Man evil, but not quite evil enough. Something a few of my fellow book clubbers remarked as well, when we were discussing this book. Upon rereading it, I discovered the beauty of the story. And honestly this is mostly due to the elaborate explanations (plus origins) of the fairy tales and myths inserted in the back of my copy of the novel that Connolly employed. The magic land that David enters is inhabited by fairy creatures that have been twisted and turned according to David’s own fears and experiences in the real world. The dwarfs of Snow White, for example, have been passionately communist and utter phrases like ‘Unite all workers’. David, having read something which appears to be Marx’s Communist Manifesto, echoes these thoughts in the magic land. And the evil Loups? Well these are the creation of David’s predecessor. For Jonathan is terrified of wolfs.
And while these reworks of fairy tales are entertaining to read and intelligently done, what stood out most for me during my reread were the descriptions of David’s grief and childhood fears. Especially how he uses his OCD to keep his mother from harm and later has to admit his repeated rituals do not serve any purpose. By replacing his rituals by meaningful tasks that aid him during his journey in fairyland David slowly realizes he can manage his own faith. And that is a powerful realization for a child that goes through terrifying times (the loss of his mother, a new mother and a new home, the war).
Now the question remains: to read or not to read? Yes, read it! But be aware: the text is a bit dense, you cannot take everything at face value and you have to be prepared to do a little interpretation yourself. And beside the sadness, the novel is actually quite funny.