'The Book of Lost Things' by John Connolly was bought back in January, so has barely had time to gather dust. He is mostly a writer in the murder/crime/horror genre and I confess that if it had a cover that resembled his usual fare I would have been unlikely to pick it up, but this one evokes quite poetically the 'fairy story' that it more closely resembles, and shows a writer who is deeply immersed in the classic story telling tradition.
All traditional folk tales are about the protagonist taking a journey of some kind, either literal or metaphorical, in order to learn something about themselves or the meaning of life in general, and coming out the other end as better people. Our hero David begins the book in classic style by becoming an orphan (well kind of, his mum dies and his dad remarries) and he seeks consolation for his loneliness in books, until he finds that the books are talking back to him and a strange and threatening little man begins appearing in the real world. Also in classic style (à la Wizard of Oz) he is whisked off to a strange land where he is obliged to go in search of an elusive king who may be able to provide him with assistance to return home. What follows is David's adventure that takes him through several hundred years of folk tales as he encounters along his path Connolly's own version of many familiar tales like Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and also less familiar ones like The Three Army Surgeons; a more traditional version of each of the stories is given in an extensive appendix at the end of the book, with a brief explanation of how each was twisted or adapted to play a part in this story. It is quite gruesome in the telling, as of course fairy tales were in their original incarnation. There is death and destruction, and our hero is forced to face trials and challenges, tests of his physical and moral courage, beyond his tender years. There is very much the sense of a clear cut good versus bad scenario, with the wolves and their 'offspring' the Loups in pursuit throughout the journey and the rather sinister 'Crooked Man' about whom, being familiar with this kind of story, you are sure there is more than meets the eye. You follow as this quiet, quite sensitive little boy is exposed to the harsh realities of life, but takes them in his stride and makes his own sound judgements about the new situations he encounters.
The book is thoroughly engaging and even though the stories within it were mostly familiar, and thus you did not have any sense that David was going to be harmed (because they tended, at least in the versions I know, to have a happy ending), and you could be (almost) certain that evil would get its comeuppance, you still had a sense of gruesome fascination with the horrors of the imagination. I was drawn on by the sense of wondering just what the writer was going to inflict on poor David next and just how he was going to extricate himself. The ending is clever and satisfying, and has the classical moral message of truth and courage winning out and natural justice being achieved. All round an excellent read, but probably not for the very young. Here David meets the harpies:
"It had a female form: old, and with scales instead of skin, yet still female for all that. He risked another look and saw the creature descending now in diminishing circles, until suddenly its wings folded in, streamlining its form, and it fell rapidly, its claws extended as it seemed to head directly for the canyon wall. It struck the stone and David saw something struggle in its claws: it was a little brown mammal of some kind, scarcely bigger than a squirrel. Its paws flailed at the air as it was plucked from the rocks. Its captor changed direction and headed for an outcrop beneath David in order to feed, shrieking in triumph. Some of its rivals, alerted by its cries, approached in the hope of stealing its meal, but it struck at the air with its wings in warning and they drifted away. David had the opportunity to examine its face as it hovered: it resembled a woman, but was longer and thinner, with a lipless mouth that left its sharp teeth permanently exposed. Now those teeth tore into its prey, ripping great chunks of bloody fur from its body as it fed." (p.113)