The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Kevin Wignall had an interesting post awhile back on the thriller writer John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things. Mr. Wignall was discussing his reaction to the book:

The Book of Lost Things inhabits that strange territory so beloved by Angela Carter, the childhood world of fairy tales but viewed from an adult perspective. I had a brief discussion with someone who considered it a YA book but I don’t see it that way – I think John Connolly is very much writing to the child that still exists in all of us.

So, it’s well written. To begin with I have to say I wasn’t blown away, but was intrigued enough to keep reading. I was also slightly miffed at what I thought was a rather clunky hook at the end of each of the opening chapters, the vague and intangible threat of a crooked man. . .

However, the important point is that I kept reading (you’ll all know that I abandon books all too readily) and even though I couldn’t quite decide whether I liked it or not, I became remarkably involved in a page-turning kind of way, to the extent that I found the conclusion of the narrative touching and the very end of the book rather sad. I still can’t decide if I think the book worked and yet it’s quite fresh in my mind over a week later (a claret, port and pudding swathed week at that) so that in itself must say something.

I found the discussion intriguing enough that I picked the book up. I actually started it before my trip to Texas and ended up finishing it up on the plane ride down. I have to agree with the other Kevin, it didn’t necessarily blow me away but it held my interest and kept me reading.

The story focuses on David a twelve-year-old English boy at the beginning of World War II. David’s mother passes away after a long battle with a mysterious illness and his father soon remarries. When his father moves them to his new wife’s house and she has a baby, David finds himself isolated from his father and feeling bitter about losing attention to his step-mother and half-brother. He begins to experience weird visions and episodes; including talking books.

In the midst of all of this he accidentally enters a mysterious portal to another world. He soon finds that the world is inhabited by a strange collection of fantasy characters most of whom seem intent on killing him. Unable to return through that same portal, David is forced to go on a quest to find the king of this strange land and a book of knowledge that might help him get home.

While reading I actually thought of it as a sort of adult version of the Sisters Grimm series. In that it explores the ideas and themes of fairy tales and myths but with a more adult tone and perspective (despite the age of the lead character for most of the novel).

Wignall mentioned that he was annoyed by certain features:

I was also slightly miffed at what I thought was a rather clunky hook at the end of each of the opening chapters, the vague and intangible threat of a crooked man. Incidentally, I think all thriller writers are irked when they can see the mechanics of the writing too clearly, and that’s what I felt here.

Not being a thriller writer I didn’t share the same level of annoyance and I don’t really recall any particular clunkiness. You do have to suspend disbelief for awhile as Connolly develops the story. The world is flushed out a great deal more in the last quarter than it is in the first three quarters. A sense of mystery and uncertainty hangs over much of the novel, but Connolly does a pretty good job of pulling it all together in an interesting and workable way. But looking back I can see what Kevin was noting. There is a sense that Connolly is building something rather than being so carried along by the power of the story that you forget for a moment that it isn’t real. Given a novelists level of expierience with such things, it isn’t suprising that Wignall would seem the mechanics that much more easily than I would. So I guess your millage may vary.

The emotional power of the story comes from a rather traditional coming of age/quest story. David must develop character and maturity if he is to survive and find his way home. As he does he realizes that he has been selfish and mean back in his own world. It is like the old saw: “you don’t know what you have till it’s gone.” The adventures that he experiences, however, are interesting enough that the story avoids being cliche or obvious.

The idea or theme that is weaved through the book has to do with the role of stories in the world. Connolly describes stories as somehow animate things who want to be told; who want to enter the world and come alive. This energy and desire has a mind of its own and creates unintended consequences. It is an interesting perspective and creates a thought provoking background for a story.

It might seem like a backhanded compliment, but The Book of Lost Things may not work on all levels but it is a unique and imaginative enough experiment that it holds your interest throughout. Kudos to Connolly for branching out and trying new things. I have a feeling he could develop into a successful fantasy novelist should he so choose. It may not be the kind of book that makes you say “Wow, I can’t wait to tell my friends about this!” But it is a book that makes you think about the role stories and imagination play in our lives.

If you are looking for something different from a thriller writer, or enjoy stories that explore the themes noted above, check out The Book of Lost Things.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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