Book Review: “The Book of Lost Things” by John Connolly

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I love “Once Upon a Time” – there is no way around it. The concept of modernised and dark fairytales has always been fascinating to me, and the show’s characters fit in the setting perfectly. Once upon a time (get it? funny? no? okay?) my friend and I were talking about the show and she suggested “The Book of Lost Things” by John Connolly. Some of you may know him as a crime novelist, but this is his first (and hopefully not last) work of fantasy. In honour of tonight’s episode of OUAT, have my review of this wonderful story.

David is a young boy whose life is falling apart. His mother has just passed away, his father re-married way too soon after her death, and his new half-brother is taking up everyone’s attention. Fortunately, like so many of us have, he finds his solace in stories contained in books. Those books speak to him in the darkness as he takes refuge in the myths and fairytales his mother loved so much. Soon, however, David realises that there is something a lot more sinister behind the whispers he hears coming from his bookshelves high in his attic bedroom. The Crooked Man has come, with his mocking smile and his enigmatic words. And as the war rages across England and Europe, David is thrown into a world he has only read about in stories and seen in his dreams. But something is not right with it. The creatures in his beloved books did not all co-exist in the same place. The seven dwarves weren’t communists, the Big Bad Wolf definitely didn’t have human legs, and the trolls and harpies didn’t have any sort of rivarly. Soon, David comes to a terrifying realisation that the magical land is under attack, and he might not come home at all…

This has all the makings of a Neil Gaiman novel.

Recurring theme of loss of innocence? Check

Adults being creepy? Check

Worlds colliding? Check

However, while “The Book of Lost Things” may share common traits with “Coraline” and “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”, it is quite unique. Connolly himself has said that this book is very personal to him and he has always been interested in the themes such as overcoming of grief and loss and childhood trama’s transition into adulthood. The stories we are told as children, Connolly conveys in the book, play a very big role in growing up and dealing with loss and grief. David’s character development serves as the main illustration. He starts out as somewhat naive and, to an extent, bratty, with the way he treats his new stepmother, Rose, and his half-brother, George. However, the longer he spends in his imaginary world, the more he grows up and transforms into a brave, loving young man.

The obstacles David encounters on his journey are a testament to how amazing of a writer Connolly is. He may have borrowed them from fairytales, but the new spin he gave them in the book is a big reason why it is such a chilling, gripping read. For example, The Crooked Man a.k.a The Trickster (can you guess which famous fairytale character he is? Hint: it’s not Loki) is normally viewed as a mischievous prankster who makes a lot of deals and has questionable ethics. However, Connolly’s incarnation is a lot more terrifying. The Crooked Man hears children’s dreams because his habitat is the land of the imagination, which is where stories come from. He seeks children who are sad or angry, who have bad dreams, and he creates stories of his own, by way of cursing them and watching his creations unfold. Connolly uses The Crooked Man as an illustration of a childhood trauma that leads to that moment where a child becomes very aware of the reality he or she lives in. Something is lost in that moment – some call it innocence, but from reading Connolly’s interview at the end of the book, I gathered that he does not like the term because he cannot remember a point in his life when he was innocent. I must say I agree with that point of view. The concept of innocence is arguably more important to the parents who like to believe that they can protect their child from the evils of the world. This is why I struggle to call it a young adult book. I reckon that children and young adults would get very different messages from reading “The Book of Lost Things” and I believe that had I read it as a child, I probably would have cried even more at the end than I have when I finished reading it last week. Quite a few elements in the book are largely open to interpretation and every reader may draw their own conclusions from it. I think that that’s what makes a good book great, and I believe that it would not have been possible had Connolly not put a part of himself in David’s character and had not written this book from the heart.

Characters

The supporting characters are, like I said above, pretty great too, both good and bad. Let’s start with good:

Roland. I loved him! He was brave, smart and loving – the markings of a true hero. However, he was also burdened with the loss of his lover, Raphael, which gave him amazing, tear-jerking backstory and one of the factors that make his character so unbelievably tragic.

The Woodsman. He serves as another father figure to David at a couple of points in the story and arguably represents what David has wanted – to have his father “back”. Rose, his new stepmother, arguably serves as the “evil stepmother” in David’s story, even though she is not evil at all. The Woodsman’s backstory is only hinted at, but that’s what makes his character interesting. Upon David’s arrival to the other world, the Woodsman is attempting a diplomatic conversation with the Loups which are the offspring of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf – they are half-wolves, half-people. If this doesn’t make you want to read the book, I feel sorry for you.

Now with the villains/morally ambiguous characters:

My favourite has to be the Huntress who is apparently based on a little-known fairytale called “The Three Amry-Surgeons”. She may not be as terrifying as The Crooked Man, but she comes pretty close. Her backstory is interesting, in a very bone-chilling way, and I was sorry that she only got one chapter. The gist is that she pulls a Frankenstein by sewing a child’s head to an animal’s body and sometimes, vice versa. Her motivations are questionable but she is a great character to read about.

The King. Excuse me why I shout “Best-written Plot Twist ever!” But seriously, no spoilers. His backstory is beautifully heart-breaking and his relationships with other characters, particularly The Crooked Man, deserve an analysis I am not equipped to give. With this, I conclude my ramblings on the subject of wonderfully crafted characters.

The title “The Book of Lost Things” is quite clever too – on the one hand, it refers to a particular plot point, but on the other, it can be argued to embody the things we have lost while growing up and the stories we loved as kids that we have forgotten. John Connolly does a fantastic job of making us look back and reminding ourselves of the stories we have loved so much when we were young. Stories are important and should never be forgotten, for they stay with us forever.

So I would like to thank John Connolly for reminding me of that. Never stop reading, friends. Particularly, never stop reading books like “The Book of Lost Things” which I have rated 9.5/10.

Favourite quotes

“The stories were always looking for a way to be told, to be brought to life through books and readings. That was how they crossed over from their world into ours”. 

“He would talk to them about stories and books and explain to them how stories wanted to be told and books wanted to be read and how everything that they ever needed to know about life and the land of which he wrote, or about any land or realm that they could imagine, was contained in books.”

Dreamcast

David – Daniel Huttlestone

The Crooked Man – Robert Carlyle (no prizes for guessing why)

The Huntress – Freema Agyeman

The Woodsman – Iain Glen

Roland – Rob James-Collier

Alternatively, everyone from Once Upon a Time in their respective roles (although Charming might have to play Roland in that case)

Recommendations

You will like “The Book of Lost Things” if you liked:

“The Child Thief” by Brom

“Coraline”, “Stardust”, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” and other books by Neil Gaiman

“The Neverending Story” by Michael Ende

Once Upon a Time (duh) – enjoy tonight’s episode everybody!

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