I can’t remember where I first heard about The Book of Lost Things, but a story about a boy who is pulled into the land of his books is a great premise, so I was definitely interested to see where this book led.
Twelve-year-old David is our protagonist, and the story opens during the last few weeks of his mother’s life. It is London on the brink of World War II. David’s mother has cancer and is fading away. David finds solace in his books, the ones that his mother read to him when he was little, and that he now reads to her while she is quietly dying.
David loves his mother, and throughout the story we are given a picture of a woman who is a perfect mother, the kind of woman who instinctively understands her child and his needs. When David’s mother dies, David is devastated. Things only get worse when, a less than six months later, David’s father introduces Rose, who becomes David’s stepmother. David has already been struggling with grief and adjustments. His books have started to speak to him, and he has strange dreams and times when he faints.
And then, after the birth of his new little brother, David finds himself in a different world, one similar to many of the stories he has read. It is a world full of danger and evil, and David isn’t sure how he will find his way home again – or even if he wants to.
There were many things about this story that I really enjoyed. David himself is a likable child, and my sympathies were entirely with him. We aren’t really given his father’s perspective at all, but he still comes off as a bit of a jerk, considering that he’s dated, impregnated, and married another woman all in less than a year since his wife’s death. Throughout, David’s dad never seems to care about David’s grief or what is most important for David. I’m not sure whether this was intentional on the part of Connolly, but I really disliked David’s dad, who seemed completely selfish to me, putting his own needs and desires above those of his child.
David’s mother had been dead for five months, three weeks, and four days. A woman had joined them to eat at the Popular that day. His father had introduced her to David as Rose. Rose was very thing, with long, dark hair and bright red lips. Her clothes looked expensive, and gold and diamonds glittered at her ears and throat. She claimed to eat very little, although she finished most of her chicken that afternoon and had plenty of room for pudding afterward. She looked familiar to David, and it emerged that she was the administrator of the not-quite-hospital in which his mother had died. His father told David that Rose had looked after his mother really, really well, although not, David thought, well enough to keep her from dying. …. When they thought he wasn’t looking, David saw them kiss briefly.
So even though it’s only been five months, three weeks, and four days, it’s obvious that David’s dad has been in this relationship for some time, keeping it a secret from David. What a jerk.
Throughout the first few chapters, the books whisper to David, but it turns out that that isn’t really relevant. Actually, there are a lot of things in those first few chapters that aren’t really relevant. David’s blackouts and the whispering books are never really explained. Apparently that all stops when he returns from his fairyland journey, but why? Why did they start? How? And how did his adventure there stop them? If the Crooked Man was the one imitating David’s mother’s voice to lure David into fairyland, than why did David’s mother’s voice appear in the creepy castle where the Crooked Man didn’t want David to go? No answers.
As David meanders through fairyland being chased by weird human-wolves that were created because Red Riding Hood had sex with a wolf (??!?!), there just isn’t enough story to keep things going. There are lots of meet-ups with semi-familiar characters (basically, if it was a fairy tale that had a character you liked, they are probably creepy and gross and possibly perverted in this version), but the story has a strange, disjointed feel. Throughout, David is supposedly being lured/chased by the Crooked Man, a vague and evil menace, who has apparently lived on the souls of children for centuries, but the Crooked Man’s character never made a heck of a lot of sense, and I couldn’t really tell if he was supposed to be a metaphor or if he was just really poorly written.
The story was overly graphic on the violence, with scenes of death and dismemberment described in harrowing and completely unnecessary detail. There was a lot of gore in this book, and I have no idea why because it didn’t accomplish anything. The whole book was just genuinely disturbing.
In the end, we get no answers. The whole story is just this sort of random “journey to manhood” for David, but it seemed like a terrible lesson to teach about the passage to manhood. It had all the cliches: stiff upper lip; don’t show your feelings; stand strong; be a man; don’t be weak; never cry. To me, these concepts of “manhood” are just as outdated as telling girls that they should swoon at the sight of blood and should always sit at home sewing a sampler whilst waiting for the prince to arrive. There is a difference between teaching children/boys that they should be strong and teaching them that to show emotion/tears is a weakness.
Basically, we are told that David was the unreasonable one in the whole situation of recovering from the death of his mother. Although Connolly doesn’t say it in so many words, the epilogue shows that David’s father was right to “move on” and start a new life, while David was selfish and immature because he didn’t immediately accept Rose and the changes in his life (despite the fact that the changes were huge and sudden and David was TWELVE) –
Rose and his father, when they were alone in their bed at night, remark[ed] upon how much the incident had changed David, making him both quieter and more thoughtful of others; more affectionate towards Rose, and more understanding of her own difficulties in trying to find a place for herself in the lives of these two men, David and his father; more responsive to sudden noises and potential dangers, yet also more protective of those who were weaker than he, and of Georgie, his half brother, in particular.
Setting aside that this is, you know, the end of the book, so we freaking know who Georgie is already (a prime example of Connolly’s condescending tone throughout), this whole paragraph just bothered me to no end. David’s dad and Rose were right; David was wrong. David is a MAN now because he knows how to set all his own feelings aside and be strong, and being strong with no feelings is what makes you a MAN. It just kind of blows my mind that a story can be written with such terrible lessons for a boy, but if it was flipped and the story was about a girl learning that the way to truly be a woman is to be quiet and humble and attend instantly to the needs of the men in her life, everyone would be freaking out.
The epilogue was absolutely dreadful, leaving us with David’s father and Rose divorced at the end of it all (I mean, seriously? We just spent an entire book with David literally having to go into another world to learn how to deal with this relationship and then Connolly decides it isn’t even real enough to make it last?), David getting married and then having his wife die, and basically everyone getting super lame endings, which was really aggravating.
To top it off, the last 150-200 pages aren’t even part of the story – it’s all Connolly condescending again, explaining to the reader about how clever he was to incorporate all these old fairy tales in such new and exciting ways (yes, thank you, it was great that you made Sleeping Beauty a vampire and Snow White basically the grossest person you could imagine, not to mention the whole Red Riding Hood/wolf sex thing, wow you are super clever, congratulations), and then actually reprinting the fairy tales in case you couldn’t remember how the story of Snow White actually goes.
I think that part of my extreme dissatisfaction with this book comes from reading it close after completing A String in the Harp, which also deals with a family’s grief over the death of a mother, except in that book, the family comes to realize that being a family is more important than anything, and they all actually deal with their grief in a healthy way, by learning to lean on one another, and it’s beautiful. A Monster Calls, which I read last year, was also an incredibly poignant book about grief.
But The Book of Lost Things is, at the end of the day, about becoming a MAN, which means no feelings allowed! Even if you’re twelve and your mother just died and your dad callously got remarried right away without even talking to you about it because basically apparently David’s dad couldn’t handle not having sex so. Way to be a man. Good job.
1/5 for The Book of Lost Things, and at least I don’t have to worry about trying to find any more books by John Connolly.