I just finished one of the best books I've read this year. It is The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. The author is best known for his Charlie Parker-series of crime novels. I haven't read any of them as I must confess I'm not a big fan of that genre.
This is just a remarkably well-realized book. The book is about a young boy, David, who at 12 suffers the death of his mother to cancer. The novel is set in England in World War II. Although it is really a fairy tale or fable it is ultimately a coming of age/adolescent story and is the classic Odyssey in literature history.
David loves books. He loves reading (which of course is why I love this book...and the character). Following his mother's death, his father remarries. David cannot accept his new mother, Rose, and his new half-brother, George. (For fellow WE-philes reading this I am tempted to contact the author to find out if these names were deliberately used as oblique reference to David, King Edward VIII and the younger to whom he abdicated his throne, King George VI in 1936.)
David begins to suffer spells and is sent to a psychiatrist who is rather hopeless. Eventually David begins to hear all of his beloved books speaking to him. (Wouldn't that be fabulous....to hear nothing but your books talking to you). He also begins to have very strange visitations by odd creatures. One night the young boy goes out late at night to chase one of the visitors and finds himself falling through a rabbit hole so to speak. Only in the case of this book, David falls into a tree trunk and is transported to a other-land.
And so begins David's classic odyssey where he must face and defend himself from monsters, dragons, demons, wolves, witches, etc. Initially, he is befriended by "Woodman" and is rescued from the attack of half wolves/half men, who bedevil the lad throughout the novel. Woodman advises David that the only way that he can return home is to visit the King of this "other-land" (it has no name) who supposedly has a book that is very important, filled with "lost things" which perhaps has an answer for lost-David. David's journey to the king is so similar to Dorothy's journey to Oz to visit the wizard to return to Kansas (Woodman sort of reminded me of the Scarecrow or the Tin Man).
What is absolutely fascinating about the book and David's journey, and this fairy tale, is that along the way he encounters along the way other famous fairy tales of yore. Although slightly different, David encounters a witch who lives in a delicious tasting cottage. The witch lures children into the house and then boils and eats them (our hero David hears about a brother and sister). David encounters another strange character, a huntress, who takes children and splices them with animals (for example, one poor victim was a little girl who was spliced with the bottom half of a deer. The huntress by the way was somewhat evocative, for me, of the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk). All along the way though David must destroy these evil characters in order to continue on his journey to the castle where the king lives (there isn't a yellow brick road).
On his odyssey, David encounters other protagonists who help him face battles and occasionally save his life. One character is the a possibly-"gay" knight who arrives on a white horse. The boy is also abetted at one point by seven dwarfs who are Marxist and live in complete terror of a morbidly obese bitch shrew, Snow White.
Along the way David grows from a boy into a young man.
I won't spoil the story for you. You must read this book. Although it is a "fable" and deals with an adolescent, this is a very dark and adult novel which is quite graphically violent (although not gratuitously) and at times borders on "horror". So this isn't just a childrens book.
I wept frequently throughout the book. There are paragraphs of such astonishing beauty and wisdom that I found myself reading them over and over again. Perhaps my most favorite is at the beginning of the book. As David's mother is dying she shares with him as a gift, her love of reading:
"After school each day, he would sit by her bedside, sometimes talking with her if she was feeling strong enough, but at other times merely watching her sleep, counting ever labored, wheezing breath that emerged, willing her to remain with him. Often he would bring a book with him to read, and if his mother was awake and her head did not hurt too much, she would ask him to read aloud to her. She had books of her own--romances and mysteries and thick, black-garbed novels with tiny letters--but she preferred him to read to her as much older stories: myths and legends and fairy tales, stories of castles and quests and dangerous, talking animals......
Before she became ill, David's mother would often tell him that stories were alive. They weren't alive in the way that people were alive, or even dogs or cats. People were alive whether you chose to notice them or not, while dogs tended to make you notice them if they decided that you weren't paying them enough attention. Cats, meanwhile, were very good at pretending people didn't exist at all when it suited them, but that was another matter entirely.
Stories were different, though: they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination, and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read, David's mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life."
Is that not just exquisitely beautiful prose? Enjoy this beautiful (it is a very dark beauty though) novel.
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