Friday, 13 January 2017
Book Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a young adult urban fantasy novel, released in 2011. It is the first book by author Ransom Riggs. The story is unique in that it is peppered with vintage photographs, which do not just illustrate the story, but are woven into it. According to the author, all of the images are actual vintage photos that he found in thrift shops, etc and used to inspire the story.
Jacob Portman is a 15-year-old boy living a boring, ordinary life in Florida. He is closest to his grandfather, who tells him unbelievable tales of his youth, but is becoming increasingly senile and paranoid. One night, Jacob's grandfather is murdered in a horrific manner, and this sets off a chain of events which lead Jacob and his father to a small Welsh island in search of his grandfather's true story.
On the island, Jacob discovers an abandoned old house. After spending several weeks exploring it, he is kidnapped by a teenaged girl and taken through a portal into the past, where he finds the house intact. There, he meets the peculiar children and Miss Peregrine, their headmistress and protector. Gradually he finds out about the world of the peculiars -- fae-type people each with their own magical power who live in time loops which keep them safe from the outside world. As long as the time loop is maintained, the same day repeats over and over, and only peculiars can enter it. Jacob's grandfather lived with this magical troup in Miss Peregrine's time loop as a child, and Jacob realises that all the 'fairy tales' he told are true. There are dangers in this magical world though, and the children are vulnerable to vicious monsters and evil part-humans, if they can lure the children out of the time loop.
I liked Jacob, despite his characterisation in the beginning as a bored, bratty rich kid. He is realistically honest, having a complicated relationship with his father, and making decisions based on his hormones at times. He has some serious choices to make in the second half of the book, and makes them on his own, which shows a maturing and depth of character. The writing in the first half of the book was very enjoyable with several witty passages. Many 5 or 6 line sentences were so well-crafted that the general advice about keeping sentences as short as possible seems moot. The Welsh island and the salty characters on it were delightful to read about. I especially loved the scene where Jacob is advised to visit an old man to speak to him before "Father Ted comes on the telly".
The story begins to falter about halfway through. I felt as if some parts were awkwardly stretched just to fit the photos in, and the monsters are quite cliched and out of tone with the rest of the book. At the start, it seems assumed that the readership is older teenagers -- the vocabulary is mature, horribly violent events happen, and Jacob displays symptoms of PTSD. But as the book progresses, it feels like the target audience is getting younger and younger. By the end, the plot has become simplified and sees the children fighting boogieman-like monsters. Compared to the creepiness of the vaguely alluded-to horrors earlier on, the monster fight seems quite crude. The childrens' characters are reduced to nothing more than what magical tricks they can produce to further what needs to be done. The witty tone falls away and it's as if the author has run out of steam and is just plodding towards the end.
One thing that confused me was that Jacob finds many photos of children from the home in his grandfather's photo album, which led me to believe there was quite a large population. However, at the end of the book, a count of ten children (including Jacob) is specifically mentioned, and there is no reference to any other inhabitants who may have left, etc. Where are all the others? Were those photos just included in the book because they looked cool?
Another thing that irked me was the ending which left such an obvious opening for a sequel. The back cover of the book mentions that it is the first of a trilogy, but I have a newer edition and readers might not have known that when it was initially released. My edition also plugs the movie heavily, both on the cover and inside. (Though I have to admit: it would make a good-looking movie.) On the other hand, there were many things about the book I loved: the creepy vintage photos, the 1940s setting, the colloquial Welshness, a tiny island with its clunky museum and proudly displayed bog-man, a time travel concept that's not brain-shrivellingly difficult to understand. Physically the book is quite impressive too, with a weightiness that comes from all the ink used in reproducing the many photos, as well as the Victorian-styled chapter headings.
The world of peculiars and time-loops that Riggs created is a fascinating one, and I wish it had been revealed further, rather than devolving into a typical light horror tale. I was intrigued by the children, who are really 70-and 80-year-olds in children's bodies, living the same day over and over again in Miss Peregrine's time loop. Are they playing the role of children to pass the time in what is essentially an endless prison, or are they actually in deep denial? I would like to have known more about their lives and thoughts. That's why I'm going to read the rest of the trilogy, but I'm not going to expect as much as I did from the first book. Next though, is to watch the movie which came out in 2016.