Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Briggs. Quirk Books, 2011, pp. 348. ISBN: 978-1-59474-476-1. $17.99
The only thing harder than reviewing a book I hate is reviewing a book I love as much as this one. ‘Am I being fair? Balanced? Judicious?’ I asked myself as I typed and re-typed line after line of a review that read more like a blurb from a publisher’s press release than a blogger’s musings.
But after much wrestling with my conscience, I have decided that my job is to tell the truth. So here goes:
‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ really is that good, folks. In fact, it’s damn near perfect.
If that’s not what you guys want to hear, why not stop reading now and buy a copy of this book. When you’re finished, join me in the comments section of this post for a veritable love-in of the strange yet wondrous world of ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’!
For those of you who have decided to stay with me, how do I love this book? Let me count the ways…
In short, it’s a cracking story, beautifully told. Usually books succeed with one or the other, but in this book the narrative texture is perfectly (yes, I know that’s the second time I’ve used this word) balanced (ditto).
The story is told from the point of view of fifteen going on sixteen year-old Jacob Portman: a privileged, troubled, sensitive young man, reminiscent of Harold in Harold and Maude. His happiest memories stem from time spent with his grandfather, Abraham [Abe] as a child. Abe regaled his grandson with fantastical tales of his childhood spent in the eponymous Home for Peculiar Children.
But as Jacob gets older, still listening to his grandfather telling the same stories, he dismisses Abe’s stories as the ramblings of a demented old man.
It’s only when Jacob witnesses Abe’s bizarre death that he wonders whether his grandfather’s stories were more fact than fiction. Starting with his grandfather’s last words, Jacob begins to piece together the mystery of Abe’s death and in doing so, unravels the mystery of the old man’s life. Jacob’s investigations lead him to visit the Welsh island that’s host to Miss Peregrine’s Home, where the inhabitants are ‘peculiars’ – children with supernatural powers. These peculiars are stuck in a time loop accessed via a megalithic cairn and are destined to re-live the same day over and over again: September, 3rd, 1940. This groundhog day existence is necessary to protect them from ‘peculiars gone bad’: those greedy for absolute power, who subverted the system before turning into hollowgasts — terrifying shadow monsters. The same monsters who killed Abe.
The book itself is gorgeous – an impressive hardback made with quality materials – with striking photographs, mostly of peculiars, on every other page.
Being a big fan of mythology, I loved the idea of a megalithic cairn as a portal to the time loop where the peculiars are destined to perpetually live out the same day. Despite the setting being quintessentially Welsh, I was reminded of Irish mythology more than once, as the island in the time loop was akin to Tír na nÓg, while the cairn as portal was reminiscent of a plot device I enjoyed in Kate Thompson’s ‘The New Policeman.’ I also enjoyed the Arthur Machen-esque descriptions of the Welsh landscape. As home to the Mabingobin, the country was the perfect setting for a magical realist book such as this.
All the characters worked hard to suspend my disbelief, which considering how far the characters stretch into the realm of fantasy – from invisible boys to shapeshifters – was no mean feat. They are well-realised, each with their own journey. I was particularly moved by the plight of Jacob’s father – a failed writer frustrated by his lack of self-realisation.
The plot is unravelled at exactly the right times, with key elements delivered in just enough detail. Like Holdstock’s ‘Mythago Wood’ or Wilson’s ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’, the segue into the fantasy world is seamless and stylish. The present day world is cleverly depicted with diverse references such as David Lynch and Jeffrey Dahmer anchoring the story in reality.
I was most moved by the book's references to the holocaust — we learn that Abe ended up in Miss Peregrine’s Home to escape the Nazis:
“He [Abe] had faced a double genocide, of Jews by the Nazis and of peculiars by the hollowgast.” (Briggs, 248)
Above all, Briggs' writing is beautiful. There are too many passages to cite to support me on this one but here’s a brief taster:
“when we broke the surface [of the sea] again, the first thing I saw was the great bold stripe of the Milky Way painted across the heavens, and it occurred to me that together the fish and the stars formed a complete system, coincident parts of some ancient and mysterious whole.” (Briggs, 239)
As you may have gathered, I can’t say enough good things about this book. I literally couldn’t put it down even though I didn’t really want it to end.
Luckily for me the ending is ripe for a sequel…