Have you ever felt haunted by a book that wanted you to read it, no matter what? The wonderfully-titled Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children followed me around for a couple of weeks, then appeared in my house under suspicious circumstances. Which is to say, it was recommended to me on various websites, by word of mouth, and I saw it reviewed all over the place. But I resisted, and wasn’t sure that I really wanted or needed to read it. I wish I could remember what finally convinced me to pick it up, or where or when I finally bought it. All I can say for sure, however, is that it made its way into my home, at the very top of my TBR, and I’m grateful that it did.
This book takes a series of odd (or let’s say “peculiar”) vintage photographs and builds a narrative around them. The concept works so well that it becomes entirely plausible to consider the pictures as proof of the story, instead of merely a jumping off point for spinning this yarn. In truth, I would have been fascinated by the book if it was just a collection of strange and creepy photographs with whatever limited information about their origin was available. (The photos all come from personal collections, mostly cultivated through flea markets and other somewhat anonymous sources, so there is probably very little solid information available on any of them.) In some cases you can guess at the techniques used to create an image of an invisible boy, or a girl trapped in a jar, or a young man lifting a large boulder with one hand. Though I still found it impressive in an age when “dodge and burn” was not achieved by a mouse click in Photoshop. Other of the photos are not as easy to explain away, and I spent more time than I care to admit just staring at them in amazement.
This is not to diminish the text in any way, however. While the photographs are well worth the time sure to be spent poring over them after you purchase your own copy (because, I should have warned you, it’s a curse I’ve now passed on – you will be buying a copy, one way or another), the prose is so well-crafted that it’s easy to forget this is a young adult novel. Okay, back up, I know those are fighting words. I love YA and read it all the time, so I’m the first one to defend it against such attacks. What I mean to say is that this is a book that is well-written it defies the limitations of any genre, end of story. It’s told from the vantage point of a teenager, but sacrifices nothing, stylistically, to his youth and inexperience. There are plenty of other quality novels in this genre, but overall I feel a tendency toward simplifying prose and structure predominates. (Leave your
hate mail thoughtful disagreement in the comments.)
The story goes as such: Young Jacob adores his grandfather, Abe, who tells him stories of the monsters who were after him during WWII, and the orphanage on a tiny island off the coast of Wales where he found shelter, along with other children hunted by the monsters. While Jacob originally takes this literally, as he grows up he comes to realize that his grandfather was chased out of Poland by Nazis, and later joined the British army to fight them personally. But that still leaves the issue of the photographs unresolved – Jacob’s grandfather shows him pictures of the “peculiar” children he lived with on the island and tells tales of their unusual traits and abilities. Jacob is torn between wanting to believe these fantastic stories and growing up to a more realistic world view as his grandfather slowly deteriorates into dementia.
When his grandfather is killed, however, Jacob begins to question what version of reality to believe – and what it says about his sanity that he has any doubts. The action invariably moves to the island where his grandfather lived during the war and the shell of the house where Miss Peregrine once kept her charges. I won’t say anything else about the plot except to warn you that it appears to be the beginning of a series, or at least leaves plenty to be explored in a sequel. This isn’t a bad thing, except that I’m impatient and want to read the rest of Jacob’s adventures right away.
I’d just like to take a quick second to mention that this book was the best physically designed volume I’ve held in a while. So much attention to detail, from the endpapers to the page footers to the dust jacket and cover and binding. I know e-readers are all the rage, but books like this one make me happy that I still do most of my reading on paper.
Overall, a delightfully peculiar, entertaining read with a literary bent that is sure to keep you up all night. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
P.S. This book was optioned as a film before it even hit the shelves. I think the action could lend itself to a film adaptation very nicely, although I always advocate reading books first and foremost. Here’s hoping they don’t mess it up and make me start an angry letter-writing campaign!
See the book trailer (not related at all to the movie project, though it looks like it could be a movie trailer):
August 23, 2011 at 11:16 pm
Great review! I’ve been very interested in this book, but our Borders is sold out. I guess it’s off to the library for me. The pictures tend to remind me of the movie, ‘The Others’, when Nicole Kidman found the photos of her house servants. Chilling…