What I’m Reading: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

My wife read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children when it came out in 2011 and thought I’d like it. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten to it on my reading stack until now. Apparently it was released as a movie a couple months ago; I’m not sure what kind of reviews it’s gotten. I liked the book well enough, but had some reservations.

Before I get to the book, I have to describe how the author, Ransom Riggs, conceived of it. He started collecting weird old black and white photographs at flea markets–things like children floating in the air, or young women in elaborate mourning clothes, or a man covered in bees. Some of them must have resulted from photographic tricks, others simply begged the question why somebody would take such a picture. At some point, he started wondering if he could make a story out of them, and the idea for his first novel was born. The photos are, in fact, scattered throughout the novel, and act as an interesting complement to the writing.

The book is about a teen-ager named Jacob whose grandfather has always told him wondrous stories about his childhood in an orphanage on an island off the English coast where kids with bizarre powers lived separate from the rest of society. When his grandfather is killed by a monster that only he seems to have seen, Jacob is sent to a psychiatrist who recommends to his parents that Jacob should go to the island, where he can work out some of his mental issues. At summer break, his dad, an amateur ornithologist who himself wants to spend a few weeks on the island searching for a rare bird, takes Jacob. It’s probably no surprise that Jacob discovers his grandfather’s stories were not just made up….

It’s actually quite a beautifully odd story, and the photos add something to the atmosphere. But they also take something away. When I read a book, I like to use my imagination, and I didn’t need the pictures of the children. In fact, I rather came to resent the way the pictures dictated how I should picture the story in my head. I have to conclude that their use was a gimmick, and Riggs would have been better served using them simply as inspiration, and letting his story speak for itself. (Of course, he would have foregone a certain amount of publicity that’s accompanied the use of the photos in his book, but that’s a different matter.)

Another problem is that Riggs is clearly a writer who doesn’t necessarily plan things out all the way, but just starts writing and sees where the story takes him. And that’s great–that’s the kind of writer I am, and I feel it lets characters breathe, and lets the story take turns that never would occur otherwise. But I do think there are one or two places in this book where Riggs writes himself into a corner and can only get out of it with plot twists that feel contrived. (I made a similar point about the Amber novels here, although in that case I felt the loose plotting worked a lot better.)

Nevertheless this was a fun and unusual novel, and quite easy to read despite some of its surrealistic touches. Any adult fan of fantasy literature would probably enjoy it.

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