Fearful writers recycle the clichés and familiar tropes of genres, brave writers redefine them and use them to amaze, startle, seduce and frighten us. John Connolly’s fantasy novel The Book of Lost Things does all of this with a few more turns to keep readers wrong-footed and following the action.
Cleverly tapping into multiple genres: coming-of-age fantasy, fairytale, as well as horror, Connolly avoids the pitfalls of each and brings a fresh and exciting take on many beloved tales and conventional tropes in the process: The wandering knight, re-imagined as gay man searching for his lost love in a thorn-covered tower, Snow White as an obese and exploitive bully, the Seven Dwarves as a delightfully goofy Python-esque workers’ collective, Red Ridinghood as the whorish mother of werewolves. Stories without happy endings, parables that remind people only of our unimportance, metaphors that point to the choices we make as out only hope of happiness.
Yet, and despite the cleverness and fantasy name-checking, The Book of Lost Things most successful and satisfying elements are its characters: the protagonist, twelve-year-old David who loses his mother, before being thrust into a family situation which has no room for his grief. Best of all is the grotesque and disturbing Crooked Man, Connolly’s antagonist. The writer draws on the tradition of folkloric monsters to create an insatiably malevolent child-stealing monster. It is a mark of Connolly’s talent, that despite the grotesque evil of The Crooked Man, the more poignant point is that the child-victims must be betrayed into his clutches by a trusted protector.
As a coming-of-age tale it it resonates on many level: David’s lonely efforts to grieve for his dead mother, his inability understand the new family situation when his father’s remarries a younger woman, the constant uncertainty of life in war-time England during the blitz ,and, not least of all, David’s struggle with mental illness.
David’s journey across the unknown land beyond the sunken garden of his new step-mother’s house, to search for the king – dying or simply unconcerned by the threat posed by an army of marauding werewolf-led wolves gathering on the his borders – and his book of ‘forgotten things’ which may (or may not) return David to own world.
Connolly, known more for his award-winning Charlie Parker detective series, is an esteemed story teller and his experience is evident in the pacing, suspense and – importantly – the surprises he drops at crucial points. The story never lags, as some new twist, unexpected development, or unforeseen alliance appear at the right moment to keep it all chugging along.
The Book of Lost Things is a well-rounded universe whose settings and background from war-time London to the monster-infested unnamed kingdom ground the characters and counterpoints the forays into horror. Well-thought out minor characters add much to the texture and tone. Connolly’s prose is deft,sensitive and to the point.The tone always appropriate whether delving into humour or horror.
As a Young Adult novel, The Book of Lost Things, ticks a lot of boxes. David, like many teens in this age of over-worked and rarely-home parents, negotiates the journey into adulthood mostly on his own. Mentors like the Woodsman, and Roland, the love-lorn knight, appear and teach him important lessons in compassion, humility and self-reliance along the way. But in the end, David’s own courage are what must carry him through. The ending, after David faces his greatest enemy, and learns his most important lesson is powerful and cathartic. The resolution made me cry, and that’s not something that just any old narrative can do these days.
The Book of Lost Things is a delight, full of surprises and a welcome addition to the ranks of modern fantasy writing, and one I am happy to recommend to adult and young readers. It deserves a place alongside Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Leguin’s Earthsea series.