Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children might be the most structurally interesting (peculiar, even) of all the books on the Golden Tentacle shortlist. Superficially, it is an extremely traditional young adult fantasy. But the author, Ransom Riggs, uses elements beyond the text to build additional layers of meaning. As a story, Miss Peregrine is enjoyable, as a book, it is distinctive.
Jacob is a your typically normal boy. He plods drearily through his middle American suburban life, going through the paces until he starts his job at the family business (an ubiquitous drug store chain). His father adds a touch of a Burtonesque – a constantly-scheming failed naturalist, Jacob’s dad sublimates his own familial pressure by taking endless notes on birds.
The real loon, however, is Jacob’s grandfather, Abe. Abe is filled with crazy old stories, the memories of which dot through Jacob’s youth. Stories of monsters and magic, escape and mayhem, nightmare and fantasy and wonder. Like a young Fred Savage, Jacob loves the stories but, as he grows up, learns that the “mature” thing to do is reject them.
Sadly, Jacob’s grandfather doesn’t get to linger by the bedside and wink charmingly like Peter Falk. Rather, he has a panic attack, sprints out into the woods and dies horribly – hacked apart by a wild animal. Jacob somehow catches a glimpse of some sort of creature, triggering a panic attack of his own. Just when Jacob had grown up and written grandpa’s stories off as fairy tales, face-slurping hellbeasts pop up in the woods. Maybe the monsters weren’t metaphors for the Nazis after all.
Jacob has loads of time to think about this as he goes through counselling (finding your grandfather’s eviscerated body and glimpsing a face-slurper will do that to you). However, after stumbling on a mysterious inscription in his grandfather’s effects, he thinks that he not be so crazy after all. Miss Peregrine’s Home, the shelter that his grandfather hid in as a child and featured in his adventures, was actually a real place. And if Jacob can find it, maybe it will have some more answers. He suckers his family into letting him take a therapeutic journey abroad and, whoosh, the story moves from American suburbia to Welsh nowhere.
As expected, Jacob does find some answers. Miss Peregrine’s Home and its many bizarre residents might not be as lost (or as historical) as he believed. As he prods around clumsily, more and more of his grandfather’s past comes to the surface, and Jacob learns that he might be more important (and more peculiar) than he ever knew.
Although the arc of Miss Peregrine is – again - nothing particularly innovative, Mr. Riggs mixes the story out of equal parts realism and oddness. Bird-brained fathers and impractical magical powers are straight out of Roald Dahl, while dry-voiced psychiatrists and mental breakdowns are evidence of a more modern aesthetic for young adult books. Mr. Riggs errs on the side of the former, leaving practical details undeveloped in favour of eccentric characters and slightly over-the-top chase scenes. Like The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Miss Peregrine features a compellingly written teenage character with real hormones and real frustrations. However, unlike Jessie Lamb, Jacob’s world is more in camera – an enticingly Weird secret history with Jacob’s family at the focal point.
Although a tantalizing world and strong characterisation already combine to be noteworthy, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children becomes something unique with its collection of bizarre photographs. These are mysterious, flawed and somewhat creepy old photos that the author found (he didn't take or even stage them himself) an included in the novel. Mr. Riggs both selected photos around the story and wrote the story around the photos – a pairing of text and illustration that’s key to the book.
Without the photos, Miss Peregrine is charming. It is certainly quirky, and were it not for the occasional evisceration, sweet. Conventional illustrations would have emphasised the conventional aspects of the story. But the photos bring the entire reality of Miss Peregrine into the mix. As Jacob spends a disproportionate amount of the story trying to figure out if he’s mad, the pictures push the same question onto the reader. Some are obviously faked. Is that comforting? Or are they so obviously faked that they’re a double-bluff, or hiding something else entirely?
As Jacob peers further and further into the veil around him, the photos help draw the reader along for the journey. Their relevance to the story (each photo is stumbled upon by Jacob before being shown to the reader) increases their mystery. The reader knows that the photos aren’t real, well, aren’t real to Jacob’s increasingly fragmented world, but they are real to us. There’s a touch of the Nick Bantock story in here with the surreptitious intrusion of the book’s questionable actuality into our own.
With this one, carefully-considered, deliberate touch – the insertion of the photographs – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children becomes something peculiar in its own right. It is a story written for both the reader and the protagonist, and experienced by both simultaneously, and in a way that builds a disturbing feedback loop. What seems a straightforward young adult romp becomes, by the end, something that’s both complex and slightly sinister.
From 16 January to 3 February, members of The Kitschies' judging panel will be discussing all of the 2011 finalists. Each review only reflects the view of that judge, and should not be taken as representative of the panel's collective opinion or final selection.