By John Connolly.
I enjoyed this book, but it saddened me a little. I’ll explain that later.
First (or second) off, let me say that if you didn’t like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell you probably won’t like this book. It’s intended for, say, kids 11 and older, but it has the same sense of words that Strange does.
The book is about a boy living in WWII Britain whose mother dies. After her death, everyone else moves on, and, eventually, the boy ends up with a stepbrother out in the country, trapped with his (believably human) stepmother in a big house with nothing for them to do but pick on each other while his father works long hours for the government. The boy, depressed, starts to hear his books talking, to him and with each other. He has fits and starts seeing things, including a disturbing crooked man. Eventually, he finds his way into another world, a fairytale land where the stories aren’t quite the ones that we know, but are very believable. For example, one of the characters tells the boy the true story about Little Red Riding Hood: Little Red disdained all the local boys. One day, taking treats to her bedridden grandmother, she saw a wolf in the woods, a wolf with enchanting eyes. She pursued the wolf relentlessly until he agreed to become her lover…and a race of werewolves was born.
And so on. The language is what you have to call poetic, although it’s really hypnotic. Rhythmic, soothing. “This is the way it is because this is the way it must always be” kind of thing. I loved the alternate (and more true-sounding) versions of fairy tales. The plot isn’t bad, the characters are okay…I’m damning with faint praise here.
Some books go like this: something terrible happens, and, against all odds, the protagonist manages to come up with a solution, and everyone lives happily ever after. But…the reader, no matter how convincing the solution is, feels this aching hollowness: the real story is that something terrible happened, and that was it. The end. No solution. That’s the feeling that I get with this book. The “happily ever after” is an illusion, and it seems like it was meant to be. Some people will probably like the book more because of it, but I feel…a little depressed. Happily ever after is an illusion, but it isn’t a cruel illusion. Happily ever after is a kind of gateless gate, the impenetrable barrier of adulthood. Only adults can see the true story of what happened afterwards; it’s sometimes happy, sometimes tragically sad, but it isn’t the nothingness that the phrase can summon up. I don’t really know how to explain it. But if you look at the story of Snow White from the vision of this story, Snow White died from the apple bite, and everything afterwards was a dream. The kind of happily ever after I understand is that she really did come back to life and marry the prince…and, years later, they got divorced, because they had other things they’d rather be doing. There’s a difference; I just don’t know how to define it very well. The meaning behind the story here isn’t something I can stand behind–I believe too much in life to do that–nevertheless, a good book.