I have to start by saying that I really loved the plot of this novel. It weaves together several Angela Carter-esque rewriting of popular myths and stories, but in this context they are all set in the same Universe (Kind of like the prelude to Once Upon A Time, but way darker). The young protagonist David is forced to travel through this strange, fairy-tale land in what he believes is a quest to find his mother, but is actually an evil plot laid out by the Crooked Man, or as we might know him, Rumpelstiltskin. In a typically formulaic bildungsroman plot David faces multiple challenges and wins battles that no child should ever win, making friends and enemies along the way. ‘The Book of Lost Things’ is in no way ground-breaking, but it is entertaining and very creepy. The best parts, in my opinion, were the stories. The allusions to our own popular myths and fairy tales are reworked into terrifying ‘truths’ – I have always been really excited by this kind of thing (refer back to the Angela Carter comment) so I dived into these sections happily and wish there was more of them. In the same way the most unsettling parts were not the gore but the small implications, such as the relationship between David and Roland, which create a worrying undertone in their interactions. There are also some light-hearted, funny breaks within the plot: such as the new version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves! These are not too frequent, so the true nature of the novel isn’t affected, thankfully.
In between these wonderful stories, though, the plot begins to flag slightly. As I’ve previously alluded to in reference to the formulaic plot, some parts of the novel were predictable – for example the identity of the king and the book of lost things itself, but if you can forgive this it is still an enjoyable read. I have to confess that I wanted more to be written from the Crooked Man’s perspective, the glimpse into his lair and history was brilliantly creepy. As a character he could have been absolutely terrifying but I don’t think this was fully realised and it was kept a little too PG. If you’re going to create a fairy-tale for adults, you may as well go for it and make it really, really creepy. This novel is already unsuitable for children so why stall in some strange half-way stage and not go for full on terrifying? I think the author missed a big trick there and I kept waiting to hit that next level.
Back to the positives: I love the context of the Second World War. This elevates the novel because it draws on the escapist methods often used by children to escape their own lives – it starts to make it believable, as much as a fairy tale can be. David’s tendency to withdraw into the world of his books is captured perfectly, and the subsequent bildungsroman is paced very well. The blend of historical fiction and fantasy is uneven as the history takes a backseat, but the awareness that this momentous war is going on in the background adds an extra layer of depth to the story.
Furthermore, the characters of David’s father and step-mother are written well. They don’t play a major part in any way, but David’s skewed perspective of the ‘evil’ step-mother taking the place of his mother is executed well and as the reader, we can see how her attempts to fit into his life are misconstrued. The same goes for David’s father, and I loved the little references to his work as a code-breaker for the War effort. Seeing through David’s eyes we sympathise, but as adults we can also see how his view is inaccurate and biased: a perfectly understandable eight year old reaction to the trauma of losing his mother. ‘The Book of Lost Things’ would definitely make for an interesting study in psychology and Freudian ideas.
Overall I’m giving ‘The Book of Lost Things’ a thumbs up. If, like me, you’re into the rewriting of old myths and tales it is definitely worth a read.