Author: Ransom Riggs
Publisher: Quirk Books
Published: 2011 (this edition 2016)
In between taking some time off reviewing books in order to sandwich in that all important entire Harry Potter reread for the second time this year, I took some time out to read another one of those books everyone seems to be talking about: Ransom Riggs’ young adult hit Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I must confess to having bought the book months ago, with watching the newly released film adaption serving as the catalyst to finally get me reading the book. My main hope was for the novel to be as fantastically quirky as the movie- a test it passed with flying colours, with everything from the title to the bizarre array of characters simply exuding originality. The storyline revolves around Jacob, a 16 year old who grew up with his grandfather’s tall stories about living in a Welsh children’s home with residents capable of all kinds of astonishing feats, yet threatened by bizarre monsters. When his grandfather dies in grisly and suspicious circumstances, Jacob decides to visit his childhood home to see if he can find closure. What he doesn’t expect to find is his grandfather’s friends and their mysterious Headmistress Miss Peregrine really exist, alive and well all these years on as they remain preserved in the same time ‘loop’, reliving the same 24 hours as every day is September 3rd…1940. The problem is, the very same monsters are still as much of a threat as ever- something Riggs stresses in order to give his dramatic exterior some decidedly dark undertones in an otherwise lighthearted, imaginative read.
I want to make it clear from the off, however, that this is a book driven by its characters rather than plot, namely the strange nature of its protagonist Jacob. In Jake, Riggs has created a character who is complex and layered, yet realistic enough to not seem like the stereotypical ‘angsty teen’ stock-character. He is able to maintain the balance between Jake’s dark thoughts after no one believes his claims about the truth behind his Grandfather’s death, and his relief at discovering the ‘peculiar’ children are indeed real, without making the character seem one of too many opposite extremes. Whilst it’s fair to say this book doesn’t depict a situation one is likely to imagine themselves in, readers will feel Riggs has indeed succeeded in creating a realistic, if somewhat ‘geeky’, character. Yet it is the socially awkward side of the character that makes his fledging romance with the peculiar Emma so entertaining, as one emphasises with his sweet musings on how to express his feelings. His shy nature contrasts well with Emma’s more outgoing personality, which is made all the more ‘quirky’ by her unique peculiarity. She is the decisive, quick-witted character needed to spur Jake into action as the plot thickens, and certainly prevents the pages spent wondering what to do in the event of an attack on the orphanage by ‘hollows’ (the novel’s monsters- evil beings who feed on ‘peculiars’ in the hope their powers will eventually help restore them to humanity) from becoming boring or repetitive. That being said, the array of peculiar children on display means this novel would probably be far from boring even if it were just 200 pages of narrative! Riggs balances his many characters perfectly, succeeding in giving each child their own complex and unique personality. These personalities are made even more realistic by the inclusion of several genuine vintage photographs in the book, said to have inspired the author whilst creating his characters, which further serve the purpose of breaking up the swathes of conventional text, appealing to the Young Adult audience and managing to make the book even more quirky and memorable.
As for the style of writing, readers who’ve enjoyed classic ‘coming of age’ tales like The Catcher in the Rye or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, will thoroughly enjoy seeing the world from Jacob’s point of view- this really is just a tale of self-discovery with a few monsters added in! Just as Jacob seems like a realistic teenage character, the book’s narrative really does read like the musings of a slightly awkward teenage boy in a very surreal situation. Riggs is able to write in the style of a teenager without sounding like an adult writing in the style they think teenagers converse in, perfecting the balance between Jacob’s frustration when no one believes his account of the events surrounding his grandfather’s death, and not making the character sound like a too stereotypical ‘frustrated teen’. It is fascinating to see the strange new world Jake uncovers after discovering the peculiar children his grandfather spoke about are indeed real, still living in the magic ‘loop’ their headmistress created and reliving the same day of the 1940’s, from his own point of view. Readers really will feel as though they are being taken along a journey of self discovery as they see the character evolve from a troubled young man to someone surrounded by an array of weird and wonderful friends, all of whom are described in humorous detail. On the opposite extreme, Jake describing the hollows in such an ambiguous manner makes them somehow even more unnerving, as readers are left to picture the monsters themselves, since Jake can provide only various bizarre details and the pictures of them are deliberately spookily blurred. What is described, however, plays on one’s darkest childhood memories: tentacles, sharp teeth and a love of human flesh, particularly that which belongs to the peculiar characters readers will grow to love. If that sounds childish, that’s because it is. Yet somehow, a monster that sounds like something from one’s childhood nightmares just seems to work in a novel that really does take readers back to their childhood, bringing both their dreams and their nightmares to life in vivid detail. Aside from being fabulously quirky, this book really is a trip down memory lane, made even better by the vintage setting.
As for the events of the novel, it is fascinating to watch Jake evolve from a shy, socially awkward teenager to someone with a determined aim. Readers are immediately hooked by the strange circumstances surrounding his Grandfather’s death at the start of the novel, yet it should be noted one of Riggs’ major successes is managing to make this event intriguing, without seeming voyeuristic or sadistic. The intrigue builds further as he makes the decision to journey to Wales to discover more about his grandfather’s past, coming to a head when he eventually discovers the existence of the peculiar children. And for once, the vivid description of said children makes our eventual meeting with them far from anti-climatic. Readers’ interest is also sustained by the subplot surrounding hallows’ attempts to gain access to the peculiar children, which comes to a head with a thrilling chase sequence to close the book. As a fan of an ‘actual ending’, however, I must confess to being slightly frustrated by the very last chapters of the novel, their purpose being nothing more than to lead us on to book two. That being said, a define plus of said cliff-hanger is that I can’t wait to get my hands on the second book. To anyone looking for a YA series to fill the Potter-shaped void: it’s here.
Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟.5 (4.5/5)