Despite a twelve-year-old protagonist and utilization of many fairy tales, The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly should not be mistaken as a children’s novel. It’s sort of a coming of age story, but from the angle of an adult looking back at lost innocence rather than the angle of a child looking forward to gained independence and strength.
Set in England at the beginning of World War II, the twelve year old protagonist David has just lost his mother. His father soon remarries and gives David a half-brother. David sees these new additions as interlopers, and he turns to the stories on his shelves for solace. The books whisper to him, and he occasionally blacks out. Eventually, he retreats into the world of the stories and his imagination. For much of the book it isn’t clear whether these happenings are real or imagined.
It’s strange to read about a hero who is so internalized. David’s path is often dictated by those around him rather than his own actions, and he more often stifles his thoughts than expresses them. The book can’t quite decide what kind of a book it wants to be — whether it is an internal, psychological, literary sort of novel; or whether it is an action-filled, myth-bending, children’s fantasy novel. In the end it’s both and neither. Perhaps Connolly did too good of a job conveying David’s confusion about his state of mind and passed that confusion onto the readers.
Many parts of this novel are brilliant. The twist of the communist dwarves was unexpected and amusing, but I wish it had integrated better into the story as a whole. As it was, the tone stood out from the rest of the book. It was a Tom Bombadil sort of interlude — entertaining, but not absolutely necessary — with tinges of Terry Pratchett’s Nac Mac Feegle and Monty Python’s repressed Dennis. Connolly did a nice job of putting new twists on old fairy tales and lore. The more liberties he took with the legends, the more successful he was. The thing that disappointed me most was that the father’s profession didn’t tie into the rest of the story at all. But maybe it’s just my interest in that part of history shining through.
The Book of Lost Things wasn’t what I expected when I picked it up, but I enjoyed the surprises. It breaks the rule that the main character of a novel dictates the age of the readers, and rightfully so. Anyone who enjoyed the films Pan’s Labyrinth and The Brothers Grimm would enjoy this book. If Connolly can make fairy tales this creepy, I can’t wait to read some of his thrillers. But I have to say, I’ll never look at Red Riding Hood the same way again.