The cover of Ransom Riggs’ new book shows us a young girl with a serious expression and wise eyes. The photo is arresting in its strangeness. It is black and white and a bit grainy. The girl dressed in a 1920′s style drop-waist dress and Mary Janes, but they look a bit too big, as if she’s playing dress-up, and, though she appears to be standing stiffly as if for a portrait, she is actually floating at least a foot off the ground.
This photo is one of many interspersed throughout the book. All show rather odd children posed in impossible ways. Ransom Riggs found these photos and transformed the children in them into characters in his marvelous first novel. The result is a book as peculiar as the children who populate it, a story about a magical world hidden out of space and time yet still tethered to our own.
The narrative follows Jacob, an alienated teen fascinated with the strange tales told by his Grandpa Portman about an island refuge for special children. When he witnesses his grandfather’s murder by a creature straight out of a nightmare, Jacob is launched on a journey leading him to a mist-shrouded island off the coast of England where he seeks to discover whether his grandfather’s stories were true.
To reveal much more of the plot would be to give away spoilers aplenty. Riggs’ story has many twists and turns, each of them well set-up and engineered to keep the pages turning. The mood of the novel is dark and spooky, but charming as well, and the magical world Jacob discovers is – in the end – much like our own: full of wonders and horrors in equal measure.
Children (teens, really), take center stage here, and like much YA, they are launched into fraught situations and must confront monsters (both real and those within themselves) from which adults cannot save them. Since the novel really focuses on facing fears and making difficult decisions, it falls comfortably within the ‘coming of age’ genre.
The packaging that Riggs wraps this coming of age story in, however, is enthralling and unique. My only disappointment was that the book ends on a rather inconclusive note. Perhaps Riggs intends to write a sequel, or perhaps he has chosen to conclude his story realistically – the transformation from child to adult is neither neat nor tidy and not an experience easily book-ended.
Personally, though, I’m hoping this delightful book is followed by an equally delightful sequel.