Saturday, 29 September 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third, 1940.”

These are Abe Portman’s last words.

Jacob has always been close to his grandfather, but as he has gotten older he’s learnt to interpret Abe’s strange tales as little more than embellished stories. The tales of strange children with strange abilities, of monsters with rotting skin, black eyes and twisting tentacles, of an enchanted children’s home watched over by a bird are just too absurd to be true. Aren’t they? But when his grandfather phones him in a panic one afternoon, saying the monsters are after him, Jacob’s life is changed forever. Not only is he left with a set of cryptic last words, but with the image of a monster seared into his brain, and nightmares and shakes he can barely begin to comprehend.

As he tries to piece together his grandfather’s life, to understand Abe’s last words, and to escape the horrors that confront him in his own dreams, Jacob journeys to the remote island off the Welsh coast where his grandfather grew up. Here he finds the bombed out ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and soon discovers that there is a lot more to this place than at first meets the eye.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a masterfully created work, combining adventure with time travel, words with images, and blending reality with the fantastical. It’s a book that just jumps off the shelf, asking to be flicked through: beautifully presented, with a slightly old-fashioned black and white cover - showing a photograph of a little girl wearing a twenties-like dress, Mary-Janes, and a crown pushed down on her brow - it is full of sepia toned photographs that, once you get reading, compliment the story. Each photograph, though, is a little odd. The little girl on the cover, for instance, is floating. Dig deeper and find strange children, a woman who appears to have no arms yet is smoking a pipe, contortionists, light-filled caves, a boy in a bunny suit. They all have a purpose, and a role to play in Ransom Riggs’ story.

Pulled into another world, Jacob meets many of these Peculiar children, and learns that his grandfather was one of them. It’s a seemingly idyllic existence that they lead, but time is running out for them. Jacob’s arrival brings the things they are hiding from closer to home and soon he will be called upon not to help them escape, to help himself too. And how is he going to reconcile this new world with his old one?

Ransom Riggs, it turns out, is a collector of odd photographs, sorting through antique markets, flea stalls, and the collections of friends, to find the strange, stand-out images that inspired Miss Peregrine’s Home. How they came to be - what is doctored and what is real - is a question that goes unanswered, though this particular interpretation is definitely a gripping and well-imagined one. The photos are not the only mysteries he has created an explanation for though: one part of the story refers to “a catastrophic explosion that rattled windows as far as the Azores” in early twentieth century Siberia. “Anyone within five hundred kilometres surely thought it was the end of the world,” Miss Peregrine informs us. This sounds awfully like the mysterious 1908 Tunguska fireball to me: a massive explosion in this area of Siberia for which many theories abound, but none have been outrightly proven.

Opening Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Given the strange images scattered throughout, I thought it would be creepy - I thought it might even be a horror story - but what I actually was I found an unusual coming-of-age story with a twist, an adventure, and a writer’s imagination that knows few boundaries. Not only does it look gorgeous on the bookshelf, it’s gripping, enjoyable and original, and I will certainly be looking out for the second instalment.

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