John Connolly | Published 2006 | ☺☺☺☺
This was another book I knew nothing about before picking it up off my bookshelf to read. I’d originally spotted a couple of friends on Goodreads had read it and given a good review, and as I was stocking up on books for my Christmas break I added it to my list. If I’m completely honest, the fabulous front cover also played a part in selection process. I mean, come on, look at it, it’s just wonderful!
It’s also, as it turns out, a pretty accurate portrayal of how I felt reading this book, lying back, engrossed in the story as the world it created grew around me with new creatures and adventures to be discovered on each page. This is a book full of magic; this is a story of stories.
It’s wonderful blend of the brothers Grimm, their fables and fairy tales mixed with a young child’s adventure through a strange land filled with even stranger characters, reminiscent of the marvellous Labyrinth, albeit without the dance number at the end, provided a warm and engaging feel, which of course made it a perfect choice to curl up with in a winter’s night surrounded by lots of candles and a large mug of hot chocolate to hand. It really was a perfect pick for my winter hibernation!
The main character is David, a young boy facing a number of significant life events all at once and understandably we find him feeling overwhelmed by them all and isolated. In addition to this he is living in London during the war and the feeling of uncertainty and fear seems to be all around him. One of the main joys of his young life has been books and as with many readers this becomes more and more of an escape for him until through magical and unsettling means, he is lured into a new world where he is surrounded by stories, some familiar and others truly terrifying where must find his own path in order to survive them.
It’s not just the obvious influence of the Grimms which brings a certain darkness to the book but much of David’s real life does too. With issues including grief and loss, loneliness, sibling rivalry and war mixed with werewolves, trolls, beasts and hunters (of children!) both worlds are filled with things that frighten and scare him, things he doesn’t understand and as we must all do, learn to face.
As with all fairy tales, the book weaves an element of morality throughout with lessons for David and others to learn, missions to be completed and understandings to be reached.
One of my favourite scenes was when David encountered Snow White and the dwarfs. There are several familiar stories and characters dotted throughout the book, although none are exactly as you know them. This version of Snow White and her seven companions was a particularly enjoyable and lighthearted piece to read and along with other, almost standalone escapades, coupled with several tales recited by characters within the strange new world, each of which begins with the essential introduction of “once upon a time”, the whole story moves quickly and gives the reader the chance to enjoy these mini-stories along the way.
After the main story is completed, the book itself still has more to offer the reader. There is an excellent interview with the author which gives an interesting insight in his own fascination with fairy tales and his thoughts on how reading can relate to our world view and our interactions with others.
Following this there is a wonderful selection of notes on some of the fairy tales which influenced many of the elements of the book. Each fable such as Rumpelstiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks has it’s own section which shows it’s influence in the book as well as telling the origins of the story and then a copy of the original story itself.
Not realising this c150 page section was there, it felt like discovering a secret second book, one I enjoyed thoroughly and could have easily read on it’s own.
All in all, a wonderful read, one I suspect will have different interpretations and meaning to each individual reader and one that I still believe is best read in winter, curled up under blankets, by candlelight and of course accompanied by a mug of hot chocolate. Just like all bedtime stories should be.