I find the premise on which The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly is based just heartbreaking—a young boy’s mother dies, despite all of the elaborate rituals and routines that he performs in an obsessive-compulsive way. No matter what David does, he cannot save her. Gone is the mother who read to him when he was young and read with him as he grew up--wonderful fairy tales and adventures yarns and exciting quests. When she dies, he feels these books are all he has left of her. He feels like he has lost the best part of himself.
His father quickly remarries and has another child, which creates a fissure in his relationship with David. They move to the new wife’s country home that has been in her family for years. They leave London to avoid the Nazi bombing raids. The father’s work in cryptology keeps him away from home. The mounting uncertainty over how the war will affect their lives, David’s ongoing grief over his mother’s death, his rocky relationship with his stepmother, his disdain and jealousy over his baby half-brother, and his feeling of anger toward his father create an incredible amount of pressure and anxiety in David. He begins to have blackouts. He turns to his books more and more. He also is drawn to the even older stories that belonged to another boy in the family many years ago. These books begin to speak to David, and he begins to get glimpses of another world.
His father seeks psychiatric help for David, but it doesn’t really do him any good, because David knows that if he reveals what he is hearing and seeing, he will “be sent away.” After a particularly ugly argument with his stepmother, David hears the voice of his dead mother calling him. He heads out into the garden in time to see a Nazi plane spinning out of control heading right for him!
As he attempts to evade the plane, he hides in a hollow tree stump and suddenly finds himself in the fairy tale world he has envisioned.
But this is no Disney fairy tale. This is the true stuff of childhood nightmares.
Chris and I read this book along with the men in our lives and my teenage children. Everyone was captivated by the premise and found they were unable to put the book down. The conversation was lively, and it was not always easy to get a word in. Perhaps we need to set up a protocol for such things, but this is not a shy crow, and everyone had a great time. This was the first time that all concerned were able to finish the book, even if one of our party had to stay in the car for a few extra minutes to wrap it up. I call that dedication.
Chris originally thought of recommending this book to my son, but she hesitated because the sadness of the boy losing his mother was so pervasive as to be disturbing. I picked it up and read it. My daughter then became intrigued by it, read it, and proclaimed it an amazing story. Then the guys in our house each read it in preparation for this discussion. Alas, none of Chris’ fears materialized. These kids today are a hardy breed—things that leave me sobbing find them unmoved. They often sit patiently waiting for my hiccups to subside, the tears to stop flowing, and my sniffles to abate. I’m often good naturedly teased for my crying at the drop of a hat.
Back to our discussion—we all agreed that the Crooked Man was one of the creepiest antagonists that we had encountered in literature. His propensity to prey on weak children by appealing to their baser, cowardly impulses to preserve his own life, coupled with the fact that he has been doing this as long as there have been stories, makes him truly repugnant. Connolly’s description of David’s visit to the Crooked Man’s lair gave all of us the heebies and the jeebies.
As David travels through this strange land, he encounters people who help him, but time and again, he ends up alone to find his own way. Connolly’s depiction of David’s journey reflects David’s struggles to grow up without a mother and with a father who he sees as abandoning him. Our hearts went out to this boy, but we admired his resiliency. We lamented his losses—and we all agreed that they are many for this young boy—but we cheered his victories.
The ending of the book led to an interesting discussion as to the identity of the woman to whom David returns at the end of the book. In an interview, Connolly admits that he deliberately wrote an ambiguous ending, and he has been surprised at some readers’ interpretations. See what you think and let us know.
Our next book discussion will be World War Z by Max Brooks. We move from the stuff of children’s nightmares to that of adult horror.