Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs
Some books walk a delicious line between reality and fantasy. The best I’ve ever read is How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found – which, by the way, I highly recommend you find and devour. We found it for a dollar at a used book shop; should you find it, I suspect it won’t cost you more than that, but it’s worth full price if you’re forced to pay it.
Anyway, some books walk that fine line between reality and fantasy. They hew so close to what could be real, that you’re not sure if what you’re reading could really happen. Phantom of the Opera might be that way for you (and here I’m talking about the original Gaston Leroux book, not the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical).
When Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children begins, it walks that line. Certain things happen… and then get explained away. And then more things happen… and get explained away. I thought the book would walk that line straight through to the end… but it didn’t. I suppose that might be the greatest frustration I had with the book: it didn’t settle on what it really wanted to be until the end. I had to change my expectations constantly as the nature of the plot changed.
Sometimes I enjoy these zigs and zags, but in this case I would just grow frustrated. I’m not entirely sure why; perhaps I didn’t have enough time to settle into the previous zag before another zig took me.
So, what’s the book about?
Jacob’s grandfather always told the most amazing stories from his youth. He’d escaped the War in Europe and been taken into a fantastic orphanage where the most amazing children lived. Children who could float. Children with superhuman strength. Children who had a colony of bees living inside them. Children who could briefly give life to clay figurines.
Of course, there were the monsters, too. The monsters always tried to tear down the orphanage. They tried to get at the children. They never did, but they tried.
When Jacob got a little older, he didn’t believe his grandfather. That’s when the old man showed the black and white photos. Looking at them, Jacob could almost believe…
The book picks up when Jacob is fifteen. His grandfather is slowly losing his marbles. When disaster strikes, Jacob convinces his family that it’s time to research where they came from. Jacob and his father set out for the island which holds the orphanage that grandpa took shelter in during the War. And as Jacob explores the island, he’s convinced that something is still alive, and perhaps not all of grandpa’s stories were crazy ramblings…
The plot of the book, overall, is solid. Jacob is a likable protagonist. His family is just the right level of dysfunctional to provide drama and yet not be antagonistic. The descriptions of the island walk that hard-to-reach line of filling in just enough of the canvas of the imagination to let the reader fill in the rest.
And yet, as I said before, the plot zigs and zags so often that I couldn’t settle into liking or disliking a lot of the story. Is it a creepy horror tale? Is it a time-travel story? Is it a coming-of-age drama? Is it dumb action? It’s all these things, depending the act of the story you’re in. And that’s what frustrated me.
When the book opens, it gives great horror forebodings. The atmosphere just reeks of doom. The imagery is just enough to give goosebumps.
And then suddenly we’re in a time travel story.
And suddenly it’s a coming-of-age drama.
Swerve into the action flick!
Each of these different styles are well-written and service the plot fairly well, but I wish Riggs had settled on just one or two and married the styles better. (I should note here, to be fair, that when time travel appeared, I literally groaned out loud, thinking that we had suddenly fallen into a clichéd story, but Riggs did provide a fairly unique take on time travel that I appreciated.) He could have kept the same plot and characters without changing the feel of the prose so often. Personally, I think the early horror vibe fit his plot best, but a coming-of-age drama would have worked equally well. Melding the two wouldn’t be that difficult! Perhaps he should read some Neal Shusterman to see how someone does it really, really well?
It’s not that the book is bad. It is a good entertaining yarn, but I can see the flaws as well. I picked it up initially because of the gimmick – throughout the book are actual vintage photos that Riggs fashioned into this story. At the beginning, I thought they worked very well with the prose to illustrate and give a good creepy vibe. By the end, though, they only interrupted the flow of the narrative.
The initial draw became a liability, the initial feel of the book vanished, and yet we still had a great character in Jacob and some very fun supporting characters. I did read the entire thing in well less than a week, which is rare for me. The book ends with a lot of unresolved plot threads, clearly leaving the way for a follow-up. I did enjoy it enough that I’m likely to look for the sequel when it hits paperback or cheap hardcover status.
Eh. If you’re looking for something unique, you definitely have it here, and if you’re searching for a neat twist on time travel, you could do far, far worse.
If you’re waiting for a steady narrative that delivers what it promises, though, you could probably save your time and look elsewhere.