Nobody ever said that fairy tales were supposed to be these romanticised versions of reality. Nope, in fact, when the Grimm brothers were compiling these stories it was the dark ages and the narratives that they were collecting were essentially tales of caution against what could befall young children if they were not careful. Hence, it is no wonder that they were akin to horror stories. Slash that they were horror stories to scare them smart.
In The Book of Lost Things, John Conolly captures that essence of bedtime stories and imbues it with the horrors of the second world war to make them even more timeless. It is his tribute to the way fables were constructed and communicated.
The protagonist of the book is a young boy named David. The book begins on the note that he and his mother share a beautiful relationship that is strengthened by their bond to stories. I loved how books were described as people who could only survive if they were recounted and remembered.
David is happy in his life but then because of the Second World War, everything familiar around him dissolves. As happens in many coming off age books; because this is what this book is essentially he enters the universe of fairy tales to restore his life back to the way it was. I refrain from using the term ‘alternate universe’ because Conolly always drops hints that this universe is not independent of ours. Then begins the magic or rather the horrors and adventures that David must go through to recover what he thinks was taken away from him.
During his quest, he encounters many people who teach him lessons and values that make him a person of substance. Someone who can think of others before himself. Each chapter is a short story in itself and each adventure, a lesson. A hard-earned one. Conolly does not shy away from the themes of death, violence or cruelty in this world that is a contorted version of the fairy tales that we all know. But in this facade of the familiar and the lull of that, all of this is just the imagination of a young boy he serves to us the evils that exist in this world.
The villain is not the personification of David’s character flaws but rather a spirit that survives by exploiting the darkness that exists in mankind. The narrative is written in the oral tradition where the primary story-line has several branches that are complete in themselves. As I flipped through each page it reminded me of what it felt like when my mother used to tell me tales of caution. Wrapping up lessons in someone else’s experience so that they are remembered but don’t leave a scar.
At the end of the book, the darkness of the narrative has reached its peak and that is when the light is shone and the contrast makes it even more profound. The book touches topics from grief, mental health to loss, and even sexuality.
It is like through all the chapters and his characters, Conolly is trying to communicate that humanity is not this pure child with unwavering belief but rather this bruised warrior whose faith in goodness is continuously questioned but restored through his experiences. How happily ever after is not a given but rather something that one strives for every day.