Sunday, August 7, 2011

Peculiarity Pays Off

by Ransom Riggs
Quirk Books (2011)
Young Adult

I love risk takers—in life and in art—so when I caught sight of Quirk Books' latest novel novel by Ransom Riggs, I cheered. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children tells the reality-bending tale of a teen in search of the monsters of his grandfather's WWII youth, thanks in large part to antique photographs that ground this odd fiction in reality.

The story is told by Jacob, a privileged teen living in Florida who tries to make sense of his grandfather's childhood tales of living in a home for children with strange gifts, protected from monsters "by a bird who smokes a pipe." The tales are supported by pictures of children with peculiar abilities (a boy who has bees living inside him, a girl who levitates, another who eats out of the back of her head). When Jacob was a small child, he believed the tales and the pictures. As a teen, however, he sees the photographic tricks and comes to understand the monsters as symbolic of the Nazis who killed his grandfather's family—until his grandfather is murdered, that is, and Jacob sees the deadly monster with his own eyes.

His experience is treated as a stress reaction. The solution: visit the remote island off the coast of Wales where his grandfather took refuge during the war. Jacob plunges into the proverbial rabbit hole when he not only finds the home, but the children themselves—looking and behaving just like they did in his grandfather's pictures.

Hip hip hooray to Riggs for effortlessly blending the seemingly incongruous—an ordinary world tainted by the extraordinary—and sustaining this uncomfortable balance long enough to pull the reader in. To this end, the pictures work magic.

I think if I weren't a children's writer, I might have been able to stay the course. Unfortunately, the narration kept throwing me—part teen, part Rick Yancey (think Monstrumologist). It's the downside, I think, of a writer who hasn't been marinating in children's literature. Voice is everything. As the story progresses, it also tends to get younger in tone, maybe a result of introducing a cast of young children for this teen to interact with. The end result is a mixed bag of intriguing genius and slightly unfocused children's/YA craft. Stronger emotional/character development would have gone a long way as well.

I wanted to love this book, but I like it well enough to recommend it for an interesting read and study of well-executed liminal fantasy. No doubt, we will be hearing more from Riggs and his most peculiar children.

Source: I purchased my copy at Orca Books.

About my reviews:
My comments and reactions to the books I read reflect my experience of the story as a writer studying the craft. I write them to examine what makes a story work, rather than sheer reader appeal.