The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly; Washington Square Press, 2007
A vulnerable boy makes his way into an alternate world filled with magic and danger. To return to his own world he must find a talisman held by the land’s king. He is beset by dangers, unsure who to trust.
So far, this sounds like many other books and stories; myths, fairy tales, Thomas the Rhymer, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, The Wizard of Oz, the Chronicles of Narnia, even The Talisman by Steven King and Peter Straub. It is like them, like all of them—and unlike.
Connelly is known mostly for mysteries and thrillers, bringing the darkness in way the Irish are renowned for. I think this is his first pure fantasy novel. The plot follows traditional children’s fantasy, but this is not a children’s book.
David’s mother dies after a long, slow illness. David resorts to magical thinking to save her—composing rituals of touching and straightening things into certain alignments—but these rituals do not work. When she dies she leaves him with his father. David idolized his mother, who taught him the love of books and stories, but he also loves his father and even with her gone, it seems that the two of them will be okay.
But David’s world is about to disintegrate. His father remarries. They move out of Blitz-torn London into a county house owned by Rose, David’s new stepmother, who is pregnant. In the meantime, David has begun to hear his books whispering to themselves—or perhaps to him—and begins to suffer blackouts.
His father works as a codebreaker and is gone for long hours, leaving David alone with Rose, the usurper who took his mother’s place, and the new baby Georgie. There is plainly no place for him in this life. Soon, David finds his way into the magical realm, a dark, forbidding wood with trees that appear to leak blood. He is befriended by the Woodsman, who tells him that only the king can help him get home. The king has a book called The Book of Lost Things, that holds the secret to David’s return.
The wood has been invaded by an army of wolves, led by the half-wolf, half-man Loups. The strongest of these has named himself Leroi and plans to kill the king and rule the kingdom. Pursued by the wolf army, David and the Woodsman start out for the king’s castle.
This is the pattern of the story. David meets mythical and fairy-tale characters along the way. Some help, and some do not. All along he is pursued by the Crooked Man, who tells David he can return him home for a small favor. He just wants to hear the name of David’s baby brother from David’s own lips.
It is clear that something is deeply wrong in the kingdom. Most of David’s allies describe the king as weak and say that the monsters they are facing have only appeared during his reign. These monsters are twisted and wrong, and some things just cannot be explained, like a World War I tank.
The feminine principle has been the most warped and perverted. Our first clue is when David meets the seven dwarves, a wickedly comic interlude that would fit nicely with Monty Pythons’s Holy Grail. The dwarves, who now call themselves the Socialist Worker Brotherhood, and are in legal thrall to Snow White. This is because they tried to poison her with an apple and blame her stepmother, but the stepmother had an alibi. (“Seems she was off poisoning someone else at the time. Chance in a million, really. It was just bad luck.” p127.) A prince came along and woke Snow White, but after ten minutes with her he headed for the hills, never to be seen again. Snow White is a gluttonish harridan who bullies the dwarves. She isn’t very bright though, and so the seven Comrade Brothers do manage to keep things from her, as we see when David innocently asks them what they mine:
“Only Brother Number One seemed willing to try to answer the question.
“Coal, sort of,” he said.
“Well, it’s a kind of coal. It’s stuff that used to be, sort of, in a way, coal.”
“It’s coalish,” said Brother Number Three, helpfully.
“David considered this. “Er, do you mean diamonds?”
Seven small figures instantly leaped on him. Brother Number One covered David’s mouth with a little hand and said, “Don’t say that word in here. Ever.” (p 136)
For the most part, the humor in the book ends when David leaves the dwarves and continues on his quest. The fairytale women become more grotesque as the book progresses. He meets the Huntress, who magically grafts the heads of children onto the bodies of animals, and hunts them for sport; then a wyrm-like creature called the Beast, gravid with her ravenous offspring; and a ghoulish, vampiric enchantress. It is not a coincidence that David is confronted with images of the horrific feminine; he was lured into this realm, after all, by a voice he thought belonged to his dead mother. It is also no coincidence that the Loups, who are the worst of men and the worst of wolves, are also growing stronger. David’s mother taught him that stories long to be told, that they must be shared, and in this place stories have taken root and borne fruit.
David starts the tale as a clever boy, well-read and well-schooled by his mother, but he has the chance to become a true hero at the end of his quest. The suspense never slackens; David is too honorable to give up Georgie’s name through malice, but he can be tricked, and the Crooked Man is a consummate trickster. In some places, David trusts the wrong person, in others, he withdraws his trust when he should not. These are the mistakes a real person makes, and the same mistakes David made in his home world, with Rose.
Despite the darkness and the horror, this is a book about hope. Despite the carefully followed pattern of a children’s fairy tale, this is a book about loss, grief, and growing through the grief. Readers can debate whether the ending is a happy one. Connolly uses simple language and simple sentence construction to tell a tale about complicated human emotions, and he succeeds.
Connolly does not appear to have a religious or political axe to grind, here. He uses the story to explore grief and growing up. As he says in an interview at the back of the book, he did not set out to write a children’s book but a book about a child. He also shares some of the original fairy tale versions, before they were sanitized and made PG for everyone. They remind us how close we still are to that dark wood.