I like this book in spite of the book. That's the best way I've found to say this. I've been going around and around in circles about Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, and what I liked, and what really annoyed me, and it comes down to this: I like the book in spite of what the book is. There's a great dark, atmospheric story that exists within these pages. There's also a great, creepy found-photograph novel. And as this was Ransom Riggs's first novel, and definitely the first novel he wrote with such a concept in mind, And...found document novels or works can be kind of finicky to begin with. Depending on the work, and depending on the source used, it's possible to get any number of permutations, from House of Leaves to S. to Pale Fire to everything in between. And a novel using creepy Victorian photographs and an abandoned Gothic-novel children's home is...pretty much exactly in my wheelhouse, let's face it. You could get a more Caius book, but only by virtue of the main bulk of my reading material being "very weird shit"*.
But there are...difficulties with this one. The concept needs to hang together a little better than it does, and while it's a fantastic novel, it's kind of hampered by its own premise, a premise that is good on its own, but a little awkward in its execution. But by no means should that discount that the book is full of atmosphere and weirdness, interesting world design, and a very quirky mystery at its heart.
More, as always, below.
"Ready to go?"
"Only if you are."
- Jacob Portman and Emma Bloom
When Jacob Portman was young, his grandfather Abraham used to tell him stories. Stories about wise birds, odd children, and the home for children he was sent to during the War. Accompanied by black and white photographs, Jacob's grandfather would weave stories about his friends, friends who could levitate and lift boulders one-handed. And for the longest time, Jacob believed his grandfather's stories completely. After all, he had photographs, and he would never lie to his grandson, would he?
But as the years go on and Jacob's made fun of at school for his belief in his grandfather's "fairy stories", he begins to take the things his grandfather says with a grain of salt. After all, people can't levitate, or turn invisible, or any of those things. Photographs can be faked. And birds certainly cannot talk. So Jacob suppresses it, stops listening to his grandfather, and dismisses his stories as nothing more than stories. His grandfather didn't fight monsters during the war, went to an ordinary children's home, and is just making things up. He has to be.
And so it remains until the night Jacob answers a panicked call from his grandfather, who talks about "fending them off" and wants to know where Jacob's family hid the key to his gun locker. The night Jacob sees something stalk off away from his grandfather and into the dark. The night Grandpa Portman desperately whispers to him about finding the loop and the bird on an island. About Emerson and the letter. And it's these cryptic statements that send Jacob off to an island off the coast of England, an island with the crumbling ruins of a children's home and secrets far darker than he would have imagined. Because stories or not, his grandfather has left him a bizarre gift, and one with hidden dangers waiting around every turn. And no matter what, by the end of this, things will be changed unrecognizably.
So I suppose since the concept's the most obvious, and works as both a blessing and a curse, I'll start there. The book contains almost three hundred and fifty black-and-white vintage photographs that serve as illustrations for the text, as well as being something of a plot point-- most of the stories Jacob's grandfather tells are accompanied by the old man's collection of photographs, and when Jacob finds the box or his grandfather's documents, then they're actually there on the page instead of just existing in the text. The photographs add to the atmosphere wonderfully, and creates the perfect sort of atmosphere, building an unnerving, unsettling world where these things possibly could exist, along with sketches of humanoid abominations, hastily-written letters and the like. It's also an interesting way of introducing the characters, having them described and then having their photographs on the next page to illustrate in greater detail. Riggs also makes good use of damaged photographs in the book, writing the damage and corrupted visuals into the plotline as he goes. It also definitely helps with immersion to have the visual aids.
However, there's a bit of a problem with this. The story seems written around the photographs in such a way that Riggs was looking specifically for places to put the photographs into the novel, where a much more organic process could have yielded better results. Another option would be to make it much more of a found-document piece than it was, writing up a brief story about each of the photographs and then trying to string them into a larger plotline. It isn't to say that the story is bad, it's just kind of jarring, and there gets to be something of a pattern where something is described just vividly enough, and then the photograph appears on the next page, which just made me anticipate the photographs a little too much to get comfortable in the world. It also seems to be a thing he relies on more often than not, and the narrative sags at points when it gets really photograph-heavy.
Which is a shame, because the narrative is really good. Told in first-person perspective from the point of view of Jacob, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children actually deals better with the disconnect and isolation of growing up than most books I've read in recent memory. It's wrenching to see Jacob slip more and more away from the people in his life, people who seem caught up in their own personal drama. His father is desperate to find new subjects for a book he's writing, his mother is stuck taking care of Jacob (who was deemed mentally ill because he "hallucinated" a monster in his grandfather's backyard) and his father (who has a drinking habit due to his inability to produce works and also possibly some fighting with Jacob's mother), Jacob's cousins just want to get him further into the family business, no one seems to care about Grandpa Portman's house...everyone's living in their own little worlds and they slip further and further away from each other the more Jacob is accepted by the strange world surrounding his grandfather.
Similarly, the world design is amazing. While not all of it is immediately obvious, and more than a little is kept quiet, and the rest I won't spoil because really, the book is worth reading, I'd like to stress that more than anything else, Riggs has created a world that is just peculiar enough to intrigue, but not forcibly or offensively quirky. It starts out as an unusual ghost story, but then brings in magic, temporal manipulation, Lovecraftian beings, and even more weird elements, creating an odd mythology that draws the reader in piece by piece but never seems too out of place. It's something I like to call the Pinkwater Effect, after the author who did it best, one Daniel Pinkwater. No matter how strange the story gets, it seems perfectly natural because the proper context is established just enough to allow for just about any ridiculous thing to happen based on the earlier framework. Of course, in this case it's more cosmic horror and dark fantasy than humor, but it still applies. Everything that happens in the novel has contextual grounding and leads to a dark, bizarre mythology that works in the books favor.
But...the other issue with the book is that, like many books of its kind, it appears to have been built with a series in mind, rather than standing on its own. The plotline is left hanging at the end of the book, with everything destroyed but not enough for any kind of finality. I cannot stress this enough, I wish more people would write books that ended, with enough left to continue the adventures on to other volumes. This writing with a sequel in mind is the thing that kills me more than anything else, and leads to Robert Jordan-esque stories that never properly end as long as the author can possibly bang out a few more books. For god's sake, people, end your books. I know it's harder, but in the long run, people will respect you more. If Darren Shan is able to do it (and even then, it seems to have taken him some time, but the City Trilogy does actually leave off with just enough that you can stop after each book), if Peter David is able to do it, then so the hell are you.
In the end, though, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is an interesting and unnerving read, a riff on the Gothic novel and with a strange historical quality that helps drive home the mood in a way few books can. I definitely suggest giving this one a read if you're into dark fantasy, with the warning that there are some very strange portions, and the story does get very dark at times. Still, I recommend it completely, warts and all.
Nuklear Age by Brian Clevinger
-Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
- The False Magic Kingdom Cycle by Jordan Krall
AND MANY OTHERS. NORMAL SERVICE...HAS RESUMED.
*There have been attempts to figure out what exactly what "my aesthetics" were. Sadly, the people who tried didn't take into account that they are literally "everything".