The Short Version: Jacob Portman grew up wanting to believe in the odd stories his grandfather told – and after he finds his grandfather murdered in a vicious fashion by a terrifying creature, he does. It’s just that everyone else now thinks he’s crazy. After he manages to convince his parents & therapist it’s a good idea, he goes to visit the Welsh island where his grandfather grew up an orphan – and discovers the truth behind his grandfather’s stories.
The Review: There is something marvelous and terrifying about old pictures. You see it on Tumblr all the time nowadays – but even back when it was just flipping through an old photo album in a dusty attic, there’s always that possibility of stumbling across something strange. It might just be your parents when they were your age (which is weird enough, let’s admit) but it could be something more interesting too, like a peculiar item or a vaguely magical/eerie moment caught forever on the emulsion. That’s part of why digital photography can never quite match proper negatives – a lack of that feeling like you caught a single moment through some kind of magic, as opposed to just being able to do it whenever you please.
But I digress.
Ransom Riggs’ strange and peculiar and wonderful debut novel is all about those photos and the moments they can inspire. The collection here, scattered throughout the novel, of “[unaltered] authentic, vintage found photographs… with the exception of a few that have undergone minimal postprocessing” is enough to stimulate anyone whose imaginations may’ve been piqued by something like The Mysteries of Harris Burdick in their younger days – and Riggs clearly goes to town, imaginatively. The titular ‘peculiars’ are a great twist on mutants/magical individuals and Alma Peregrine’s similarities to Charles Xavier should be taken as a compliment and not a brush-off. Seeing them, though, is perhaps what’s most exciting about the book. You’re allowed to imagine them, still, because you’re only looking at the image for a moment before flashing on to the next page of text… but that sepia-toned glimpse allows your imagination to color inside the lines, as it were, instead of just going crazy.
Speaking of not going crazy: Riggs doesn’t get too carried away in the telling of this story, despite his evident joy in the writing/creation of it. This story is measured and told with… not restraint or stateliness but a proper, steady pace. I was so impressed that he didn’t try to rush any parts of it and instead introduced things all in due time, allowing the reader to get comfortable before adding something new to the mix. It takes about a third of the book to even introduce the title character – but the mystery and the world that Riggs presents in that first third are fine in and of themselves. We’re in America, we see an ‘ordinary’ (ish) family, and there’s a real question of whether or not Jacob can be believed. When we discover (no spoilers, it’s pretty obvious just from the jacket copy) that he can be believed, it’s like pushing open a door to the outside – the world suddenly expands, in a very natural (albeit frightening and confusing) way. And as Jacob comes to understand this new world, so does the reader and it all feels very organic and lovely. Names for the peculiars and their enemies and their abilities – terms like “wights” and “hollows” and “ymbrynes” – are introduced and then defined and then clarified and none of it feels overwhelming. It’s some really exceptional world-building.
There’s also – and I mention this in relation specifically to some of the other things I’ve read of late and to my BookClub’s last discussion (of this book) – a really interesting look at a time in our past that is still so important. To consider the parallel of the Nazis and these monsters who hunt the peculiars… it’s a dangerous trap and Riggs, for the most part, steers clear of it, only explicitly laying it out once or twice. But I really find that it struck me in a powerful way, whereas these sorts of parallels often don’t. The idea that everyone believed Jacob’s grandfather meant the Nazis – and he did, he certainly, to some extent did – when he talked about fleeing from monsters in his childhood… but that he really had this other set of monsters he fled from… there’s a psychological depth that can be plumbed here, if you’re so inclined. If I was still in college, I might write a paper about it – that sort of thing. But I can assure you, I expected nothing of the sort – in terms of intellectual engagement – when I picked this book up. Bravo.
Rating: 5 out of 5. There are some lags in the plot and the initial arrival in Wales takes a little long to gear up (the introduction, for example, of the delinquents on the island… kind of unnecessary) but they were little bumps in the road. The story is magnificent and the design of the book, right down to the marvelous red hardcover with Ms. Peregrine’s name on the cover and including every single picture – it’s a delightful object as much as it is a delightful novel. I’m so thrilled that it’s to be a series and I can’t wait for book two.