I’m sure the person who bought me this as a present has no idea that one of my fascinations in life is old photographs. Many’s the time I flick through them in junk shops, wondering, what exactly is the story behind each picture? Those two people, posing – lovers? Friends? Friends having an affair that no one ever found out about? That building – where is it? Does it still exist? Who lived there? Who died there?
Such is the premise behind the at first charming, at times puzzling and frequently dark Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Young Jacob’s fascination for his grandfather’s old, other-worldly photographs leads him into a world he couldn’t suspect existed – as he tries to come to terms with tragedy and with memories he knows must be impossible.
The prose is punctuated by the photographs themselves, giving the book not just something visual as an anchor but creating a deeper, more brooding atmosphere.
It’s a book of many different tones. Its language is efficient, keeping the reader moving. Its ideas sparkle with originality, fun and fear. Like the peat-bog in the story itself, the narrative keeps shifting under the reader’s feet – as you’re led into strange dark places that grow darker still as you read on. It’s also frequently gripping, with a real sense of jeopardy that increases in scale as the book progresses.
Jacob sets out to discover the truth behind his grandfather’s past at an orphanage on a remote Welsh island, but finds only the crumbling ruins of the past – the children long gone, the orphanage a ruin being reclaimed by nature. Yet as Jacob explores, he finds that the past may not be as far away as he thought.
That’s enough spoilers. I’ve had something of a ‘reading dry spell’ and this was exactly the right kind of book to break it. It seems light to begin with, but soon pulls you into its dark world. The children are not the prissy youths of so much fantasy fiction, but streetwise, sassy and conflicted. It’s well-written, with just one passage feeling oh-so-much like a scene from Woman in Black – but the rest shimmered with originality. It’s also a book that’s hard to categorise – young adult? Possibly? Horror? In parts. It dances between genres niftily, stealing from them what it will and deftly avoiding sinking in any of them.