Ransom Riggs is a New York Times best selling author and the mastermind behind the dark, imaginative and arrestingly brilliant ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children’ published by Quirk Books. The book was originally released back in 2011 but there has been a surge in the popularity of the novel due to the film adaptation; directed by the captivating and disturbingly visionary mind of Tim Burton.
The book itself is magnificent in its production factor and premise; what is key to this elegantly told story are the oddly peculiar photographs that appear throughout the book which aid to help the reader visualise what is happening within the story. The photographs are somewhat haunting in their appearance which I believe the effect Riggs was going for, the element of the bizarre and peculiar.
The novel opens with the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that ingeniously sets the tone for the rest of the book;
‘Sleep is not, death is not; who seem to die live. House you were born in, friends of your spring-time, old man and young maid, day’s toil and its guerdon, they are all vanishing, fleeing to fables, cannot be moored.’
We are quickly introduced to our main protagonist Jacob and we learn that his father Abraham (its turning into a biblical affair) has an incredible gift as a raconteur. His grandfather Abraham used aids to tell his mysterious stories, which were kept in an old cigar box, and these aids are the old, yellowed photos of a time long since passed; snapshots into the lives of peculiar individuals.
For those of you that don’t know, Riggs is a passionate photograph collector and spends a lot of time at thrift sales searching for photographs and this is where the idea for ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children’ came from. Check out his video here (http://www.ransomriggs.com/film_adventures.php – the one called Talking Pictures).
‘I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After. Like many of the extraordinary things to come, it involved my grandfather, Abraham Portman.’
Riggs’ writing style is wonderfully captivating and after reading through the prologue I’d already formed an attachment to his protagonist Jacob; and oddly felt that I knew him, and wanted to follow him on the journey of discovery that lay before him.
It turns out Jacob is rather taken with his Grandfather’s stories; blindly believing in his tales; but as Jacob grows up he suffers humiliation for his beliefs and begins to question their authenticity as his parents also sew seeds of doubt in his mind. Crestfallen, his Grandfather stops talking to him about them and slowly becomes a recluse. He’s looked upon as the black sheep of the family. What I loved about the opening of this book is that it’s relatable; we’ve all had that crazy black sheep uncle, fear of inadequacy, humiliation, and possibly even that eccentric Grandfather who regaled war stories. But who knew if they were true or not? OK, just me with the crazy uncle and senile Grandfather? No? I thought not – well this book is for you!
We find out that instead of being peculiar, Jacob’s life has turned somewhat boring, that is, until he receives a call from his Grandfather, a call from a senile old man for whom he is now the only carer; as Jacob’s parents have washed their hands of this lying, geriatric storyteller.
We discover that Abraham was murdered and Jacob is the only witness to the strange circumstances surrounding his death. Jacob is also left with Abraham’s dying words; informing him that he must visit the island, where he would be safe and tasked with finding the bird in the loop. Can anyone say dementia?
So Jacob’s parents sign him up for counseling, clear out his Grandfathers apartment, and basically try to move on from this troublesome relative, but Jacob remains consumed by what his Grandfather told him and is left trying to discover the truth of the mundane world around him. That is, until his aunt gives him a present – needless to say he finds what he’s looking for and with the blessing of his counselor, he heads off to the Island with his father in tow to begin his journey of discovery.
What I love about the way Riggs writes is that it appeals on many levels to a broad range of readers; the ‘Peculiar series’ are marketed for the young adult fiction genre but they are universal, arrestingly brilliant, and truly wonderful forms of escapism bound in 353 pages. Although the story centers on young adults, the core of the book delves much deeper and deals with issues of inclusion and belonging. I didn’t for one moment think I was reading a novel aimed at this younger demographic and it is an astonishing story delivered in a captivatingly new and invigorating way.
So a journey across land, sea and air leads Jacob and his father to the quaint Cairnholm Island off the Welsh coastline (yes it’s a real place). Rigg’s describes in vivid detail just how charming this Island is; which helps the reader picture it and feel immersed in the dreariness of island life, as well as its eclectic mix of locals – and that’s not even taking into account the house brimming with peculiar children!
After ditching his father, Jacob explores the island and discovers a dilapidated house – the ruins of a children’s home in which Abraham lived as a child and met the subjects of his many photographs.
It’s here where Rigg’s delivers the knockout blow as he deftly introduces his eccentric cast of characters through a chance encounter within the dilapidated house and a trip through a ‘loop’ – think a worm hole that teleports a person to the same spot in a specific time in the past – or future – depending on which way you entered? Still with me?
Riggs’ prose pulls the reader into the bulky middle of the story, where an awful amount of back story – the building blocks of his universe of peculiar beings and loops etc. – is explored, however, reading it never feels like a chore; it’s a story which seems down right peculiar but one that is hard to resist falling in love with. With a cast of characters so large it could be easy to loose track of who’s who and who does what, Riggs deals with each character so tenderly that you grow to love each of them as your own friends. He ensures that his origin storylines are written with a dynamism and passion that we the reader are fully aware of what binds this peculiar story and its complex universe of loops, Ymbryne, Wights, hollowgast’s and Peculiars together. It’s all about the details.
Towards the conclusion of ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children’ its hard not to get swept away with the frenetic pace that makes the last third of the book disappear in a heartbeat, leaving the reader somewhat like a rabbit in headlights, but it’s one thing to be swept along for the ride; and another thing altogether if you don’t want the ride to end. So would I recommend this book? Yes. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am very much looking forward to devouring the next two peculiar tales. Is it for everyone? Probably not. I loved the book and bought into the world that it’s set in; but young adult fiction is not for everyone. The book itself is beautifully crafted and the pictures which appear throughout give the book an added dimension and help the reader further submerse in to this enchanting universe.
One of the only draw backs I found – if you can put the whole young adult genre behind you (which I firmly did), was that some of the Peculiar children were a little underused. But when you have a supporting cast of thirteen or more characters, there just isn’t enough time or space in the book to explore all of their peculiarities and give them each enough space to grow – I can only assume that is why there are three books! So I do hope to see more of some of the underused characters in the following books.
For fans of the film, I’d also highly recommend purchasing a copy of the book, particularly as the final third of the book is very different to how events transpired on screen. If you’re a fan of the peculiar series I’d suggest you read Riggs’ book to see how his version is immeasurably better than Tim Burton’s (Jason and the Argonauts – Ray Harryhausen) climax. I’d go for subtle, emotionally driven, masterfully told and beautifully arranged endings every time – and lets just say Riggs delivers on that front!
But whatever you do, buy it or not, watch it or not, read it or not, just don’t conform, stay peculiar!
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children was published by Quirk Books on 20th May 2012.
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Review by Ross Jeffery
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