Warning: May contain spoilers – although I’ll do my very best to avoid them, because I really, truly think you should read this book 🙂 .
Ransom Riggs’ first novel, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”, is told in the first person by the book’s protagonist, 16-year-old Jacob (Jake) Portman. In his childhood, Jake enjoyed a close relationship with his grandfather, Abe Portman, who used to thrill him with tales of his own boyhood adventures, of his miraculous escape from monsters with rotting skin and mouths full of squirming tentacles, who were invisible except for their shadows, right up to the moment they attacked. Because of the monsters, Abe had been shipped off at the age of twelve from his home in Poland, to a children’s home on an enchanted island off the Welsh coast, where the sun always shone and where the children were protected and watched over by a wise old bird.
As he grows older, Jake begins to have his doubts about the truth of his grandfather’s stories. Questioned by his grandson as to why the monsters wanted to hurt him and the other children, Abe would reply that it was because they were peculiar. One girl could fly, one of the boys was invisible, another had bees living inside him and so on. Challenged to produce proof, Abe would show his grandson faded, yellowing snapshots. Now, this is one of the features which first drew my attention to the book – apart from the lengthy title. The book is illustrated with intriguing old black and white photographs, which the author collected from many sources and which, I believe, inspired him to write this novel.
Eventually, teased by his classmates at school, Jake angrily announces to his grandfather that he no longer believes in his fairy tales. It is not till a few years later, when he learns from his own father how Grandpa Abe was the only member of his family to escape from Poland before the Second World War broke out (it is implied, though not explicitly stated, that he was sent to Britain as part of the Kindertransport), that Jake begins to understand that “the story of Grandpa Portman’s childhood wasn’t a fairy tale at all. It was a horror story…” – that the “peculiarity” for which he had been persecuted was simply his Jewishness and that his family had all been murdered by the monsters Abe had escaped. “But these weren’t the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, the kind a seven-year-old might be able to wrap his mind around – they were monsters with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don’t recognize them for what they are until it’s too late.”
Jake stops asking his grandfather to tell him stories, abandons his own ambition to become an explorer and have adventures of his own and settles down to the business of being “normal”. But his grandfather becomes more and more “peculiar”, insisting that the Monsters are still after him, until Jacob’s father and mother begin to talk about putting him in a Home, where they are used to treating people with dementia.
All this, we learn from the Prologue. At the start of the Book Proper (as I like to call it), Jake, who has a vacation job at one of the drugstores owned by his mother’s family, receives a panicked phone call from his grandfather, which brings him out to Abe’s house. There, he finds Abe mortally wounded, having been brutally attacked by someone or something. Abe dies in his grandson’s arms and his dying words send the teenager off to Wales, to find out the truth about his grandfather, the enchanted island, the peculiar children and the monsters.
As Jake explores the crumbling ruins of what was once a place of refuge for Abe and his friends, it becomes clear that the explanation for his grandfather’s fantastic tales is nowhere near as simple, or as prosaic, as Jake’s father made it out to be.
Part fantasy, part horror story, part science fiction, part detective story – I could not put this book down, but found myself reading into the small hours of the morning, until I reached the cliffhanger ending. You can imagine my relief when a hasty Google search led me to Ransom Riggs’ own website, where I learned that he is in the middle of writing a sequel! Not only that, the novel is to be filmed, and Tim Burton is to direct it. Now, I think Tim Burton is seriously disturbed 😉 but I love his work and I cannot think of anyone better qualified to direct this movie.
I will leave you with Ransom Riggs’ own trailer for the book. Be warned – it’s creepy…
Shabbat Shalom! Have a great weekend.