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Standout Books: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

In my last post about reading, I mentioned how I often feel drawn toward a book for a particular time or place in life, whether that’s because of a friend’s recommendation, the blurb on the back, or even the cover design. The Book of Lost Things was one of these books, and turned out to be an unforgettable read because of its strong themes about the power of story and about not being controlled by fear and grief. Here’s my (very) full review of what I learnt from a twelve year old boy, and an Irish crime-thriller writer who thought he’d killed his career with this book.

I have never identified so strongly with a fictional character as I have with David, the young boy whose grief at loosing his mother is so strong that he is pulled into a world of myth and fairytale. Within sentences of the book beginning, I felt such a strong connection to David and his world, and a profound trust in the author’s competence to tell a story that I belonged in and to. The key to this was Connolly’s description of the love and reverence that David and his mother shared.  David’s mother describes to him how stories are alive, or rather that they came alive in the telling, lying dormant until they were enabled, through reading and telling, to take root and come alive in a human’s imagination. I felt like Connolly was being smart here, taking on the maternal voice as his own to imbue both his creation, David, and his readers with the love of story that creates a deep bond between character and audience, as well as framing our experience of this particular story. I was also touched by Connolly’s description of the shared-isolated experience between two readers, in this case, David and his mother:

‘before she grew sick he would often step quietly into the room in which his mother was reading, acknowledging her with a smile (always returned) before taking a seat close by and immersing herself in his own books so that, although they were both lost in their own individual worlds, they shared the same space and time. And David could tell, by looking at her face as she read, whether or not the story contained in the book was living inside her, and she in it, and he would recall again all that she had told him about stories and tales and the power that they wield over us, and that we in turn wield over them.’

This is for me, the essential experience of sharing the love of story with another. I am fortunate enough to share in the passion of reading with my partner, and this is a beautiful description of that shared space in our own worlds, and the many blissful hours we have spent in complete silence (followed by many hours in enlivened discussion over what we have just devoured. Needless to say, we both loved this part of the book).  In the interview with John Connolly contained in the book, he makes a pretty good argument, aside from The Book of Lost Things itself, for the virtue of reading:

‘I think the act of reading imbues the reader with a sensitivity toward the outside world that people who don’t read can sometimes lack. I know it seems like a contradiction in terms; after all reading is such a solitary, internalizing act that it appears to represent a disengagement from day-to-day life. But reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, encourages us to view the world in new and challenging ways…It allows us to inhabit the consciousness of another which is a precursor to empathy, and empathy is, for me, one of the marks of a decent human being.’

During his mother’s illness, David becomes obsessive compulsive. This only becomes worse after his mother’s death, and is aggravated by his father’s rather fast remarriage and the birth of David’s half-brother. David develops the need for routines, or a need to touch objects a certain number of times as well as developing deep, troubling moods and perhaps a more unhealthy relationship with stories. The details of him being taken to see a psychiatrist, who simply if rather obviously concludes that David is not well, are lovingly and well written, and perhaps it is not surprising, then, that these spring out of Connolly’s own experience as a boy. The Second World War is progressing, and so David’s father – a code breaker – is away more often, leaving a growing stress between David and his stepmother and baby half brother. As this stress reaches breaking point, David finally enters into another world, a world of myth and fairy tale and story, through a hole in the garden wall. In this world he encounters various characters from well-known fable and fairy tale, except all with Connolly’s grim, witty and chilling re-working. There are the wolves, or the Loups, from Red Riding Hood, there’s Rapunzel’s tower, and Roland from Robert Browning’s poem ‘ Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. The dwarves from Snow White make an appearance, except that they have all become socialists and call each other comrade and who sing songs where all the words about class and rights and liberties don’t exactly fit the known tune. My favourite of the characters is the woodsman, who looks after David as he arrives in the land. In particular, the woodsman notices David’s strange obsessive behaviour about how he touches objects and relates some wise words to any of us whose behaviour is often driven by fear, obsession and the need for control:

‘Rules and routines are good, but they must give you satisfaction. Can you truly say you gain that from touching and counting?’

‘David shook his head. ‘No,’ he said, ‘but I get scared when I don’t do them. I’m afraid of what might happen.’

‘Then find routines that allow you to feel secure when they are done. You told me that you have a new brother: look to him each morning. Look to your father, and your stepmother. Tend to the flowers in the garden, or in the pots upon the window sill. Seek others who are weaker than you are, and try to give them comfort where you can. Let these be your routines, and the rules that govern your life.’

*Paper toy of David, the main character, by Rhiannon Izard. Amazing.

What is beautifully done is that there are always two versions of David’s disappearance into this other world. There’s the ‘grown up’s version’ – that David is becoming more and more disturbed and obsessive, he is having visions and loosing his grip on the world around him; finally, one night he is in the garden as a fighter plane comes crashing down and he is knocked into a long coma. The other version, David’s version, is that he begins to see a crooked man sneaking round the house, who draws him into a strange world with the promise that David’s mother may still be alive there. In this world of story and fable and fiction he battles with all manner of creatures, as well as his own fear, before returning to his own world a transformed young man. There is never any sense that mental illness or being in a coma is the ‘explanation’ for what David goes through; conversely it is never portrayed that this adventure is the explanation for David’s behaviour.  In particular, David’s OCD is carried over into the world of story, where he is challenged to deal with his grief and his fear. Both the ‘real world’ and the world of story and fable then remain true throughout the book.

Overall, I was quite surprised at how attached I became to this book and its characters. I wept openly in front of perfect strangers at parts of the book, as well as feeling personally spoken to by the woodsman’s words about ensure that my routines and obsessions are for the care and comfort of others. The book does feel like it was written in a hurry and is a tad episodic, but that didn’t stop me from loving it. The Book of Lost Things also has one of the best happy-sad or sad-happy endings (depending on your interpretation) that I’ve ever read – I sobbed for a good half hour…and not the attractive, calm kind of sobbing, no the energetic, flailing kind where there’s turning red, and lots of snot, and wailing ‘it’s just so saaaaaaad’. I feel bad recommending a book to people that had such a strong emotional impact on me – partly because they may not feel the same way about the book – but then again, I really think that is what reading is about. If I can’t recommend a book that entertained, enthralled and appalled me as well as speaking to some of my deepest loves (reading, family) and troubles (being driven by fear and grief), then I’m not sure I can recommend books at all.

*Word painting inspired by The Book of Lost Things, made by Sherri Du Pree.

Read this if:

-You love story and fable and don’t mind some of the darkest parts of Brothers Grimm.

-You love a good adventure story, with a bit of magic thrown in.

-You’ve ever felt or still feel that your world is out of your control.

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