A ‘novel’ novel

rocks
West Wales beach, looking west towards a mythical Gwales (personal photo)

Review first published 19th February 2015, reposted now that Tim Burton’s film of the same name is on general release

Ransom Riggs
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Quirk Books 2013 (2011)

There is a technique storytellers use whereby cues —  words, phrases, scenes, characters suggested by audience members — are randomly inserted into an improvised narrative. Italo Calvino built up his novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies upon a sequence of Tarot cards, using the images to suggest not only a possible narrative but also to link to other classic narratives. These processes are similar to the ways in which Ransom Riggs constructs 16-year-old Jacob Portman’s journey from suburban Florida to a wet and windy island off the coast of Wales. Authentic ‘found’ vintage photographs of sometimes strange individuals placed in enigmatic positions or curious scenarios — these are the bones on which the author constructs his fantasy of children (with, shall we say, unusual talents) and the dangers they potentially face. For the reader the inclusion of these photos at appropriate points in the text is not only an added bonus but an integral and highly effective facet of the tale.

Jacob’s grandfather has regaled him with stories of his escape from wartime Poland to a place of refuge in West Wales, the titular Home for Peculiar Children run by the equally peculiar Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine. He is taken to Cairnholm Island by his amateur ornithologist father for a therapeutic holiday — this after the trauma of witnessing his grandfather’s violent demise — in part to resolve the unanswered questions that he’s left with. He finds the home in ruins, bombed during the war, but whenever he visits a prehistoric tomb beforehand he finds that the house returns to its former splendour. And he discovers that at those times it is inhabited…

Ransom Riggs’ first novel has many attractive features for a fantasy: initial mystery (exactly what did Jacob’s grandfather do on his ‘hunting trips’?), the increasing appearance of magic (the incredible powers of individuals, travel elsewhere in time and space through a portal) and menacing monsters (what exactly are wights and hollowghasts?). After a slow start the story’s pacing then starts to grip the reader and, as opposed to novels where it isn’t clear till the final few pages, here there is a clear sense of a beginning of a promising series. But is the plot driver really only a random-ish selection and sequencing of weird photos, however unexpected they may be?

I’ve generally avoided reviews and discussion of this book and so I don’t know if what I’m about to say is already known; nor do I know if my theory is, however plausible, way wide of the mark or merely coincidence. But I offer it as a chance to look aslant at the story, through half-closed eyes as it were, and that by throwing light on the novel from a different angle new aspects may be revealed.

Ten years of living in West Wales made me curious about the island of Cairnholm, site of a small fishing community and Miss Peregrine’s Home. ‘Holm’ is a common name for an offshore island around the coast of Wales, a legacy of Viking raids and settlement around a millennium or so ago; the ‘cairn’ element refers to a Neolithic burial mound which dominates one end of the island. We know from a preview of the book’s sequel included in the paperback edition that ‘Cairnholm’ is around nine kilometres — five or so miles — from the mainland. Is there a real Welsh island that could have been the model for Cairnholm?

After Anglesey and its satellite Holy Island off the coast of North Wales, the third largest Welsh island is Skomer, separated from the Pembrokeshire mainland by a deep channel. It’s a ornithological paradise, and in season includes thousands of pairs of nesting seabirds — including the Manx shearwater that Jacob’s father gets excited about when he spots it. About 2 miles by 1½ miles in size, it’s possible to conceive this as Cairnholm even if there’s no fishing village here, just a farmhouse and some holiday cottages. The problem is that it’s no real distance from the mainland.

However, about ten kilometres (six miles) to the west of Skomer is the island of Grassholm, in Welsh Ynys Gwales. Essentially this is a giant uninhabited rock largely covered in gannet guano, and doesn’t seem at first a likely contender. But Ynys Gwales has a long mythological history as the location of a mystery island. At the end of the 19th century a sea captain reported an island floating a little below the surface of the sea in the vicinity of Grassholm; earlier in that century mainland folk claimed they could on occasion see Fairy Islands a short distance off the coast, supposedly densely populated with fairies; and Victorian scholar John Rhys suggested that a phantom Pembrokeshire island inhabited by ‘the Children of Rhys Ddwfn’ (Plant Rhys Ddwfn) was really a fairy island, as these folk were properly Plant yr Is-Ddwfn, that is, ‘the Children of the Underworld’. The oldest identification of this island with Grassholm or Ynys Gwales was in the Medieval Welsh tale of Branwen the Daughter of Llyr.

In this old narrative Branwen’s brother Bran is a giant, who commands his head to be cut off and used as a talisman by a group of Welsh heroes, survivors of mighty battles with the Irish. They are to go Ynys Gwales where they will be safe for a time, perhaps a reflection of the island’s etymology (gwâl in Welsh means ‘lair’ or ‘den’, somewhere in fact to shelter). “And at Gwales in Penvro you will be fourscore years, and you may remain there … until you open the door that looks towards Aber Henvelen, and towards Cornwall. And after you have opened that door, there you may no longer tarry…”

There is a coming together of various elements here that I think is reminiscent of Riggs’ novel: the not easily accessible Welsh island, the island where time stands still — at least until a crisis arrives — and the entertaining of the select group of personages by a Head, Bran’s severed head in the medieval tale and the Head Teacher Miss Peregrine in the novel. And the Home for Peculiar Children is the counterpart of a regal hall on the island of Gwales:

“And there they found a fair and regal spot overlooking the ocean; and a spacious hall was therein. And they went into the hall, and two of its doors were open, but the third door was closed, that which looked towards Cornwall …

And that night they regaled themselves and were joyful. And of all they had seen of food laid before them, and of all they had heard of, they remembered nothing; neither of that, nor of any sorrow whatsoever. And there they remained fourscore years, unconscious of having ever spent a time more joyous and mirthful. And they were not more weary than when first they came, neither did they, any of them, know the time they had been there.”

But when the forbidden door is opened “they were as conscious of all the evils they had ever sustained, and of all the friends and companions they had lost, and of all the misery that had befallen them, as if all had happened in that very spot …  And because of their perturbation they could not rest …”

Is this the conscious template for Ransom Riggs’ story? Maybe, or maybe not; only the author knows. Either way it provides a narrative depth for the novel that I find very satisfying, in a way that a selection of odd vintage photos, however artfully incorporated, does not. Does this putative blueprint detract from the book’s originality? I don’t think so, as it is the imaginative use and combination of apparently commonplace motifs that can make a novel truly novel. And on that basis, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children — despite a few flaws, mostly culture-specific — is a ‘novel’ novel.

Grassholm from Skomer - geograph.org.uk - 1590881.jpg
“Grassholm from Skomer – geograph.org.uk – 1590881” by John Rostron. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Advertisements

32 thoughts on “A ‘novel’ novel

    1. Using pictures to construct a story is not difficult, but the manner in which it’s done is key to its success. There was a Stephen Poliakoff TV drama, Shooting the Past, which used many archival photos to construct a fictional mystery for the narrative, and which not only worked for me but was a critical hit. The Calvino tale using Tarot imagery however I found harder going, only getting halfway through before temporarily putting it aside.

      And there have been endless novels of course taking a painting as a jumping-off point — The Girl with a Pearl Earring being a well-known example. Don’t all authors begin their stories on a montage of vivid images and incidents? I’m sure you do, Col!

      1. Intriguing systems, but I’m not sure I could bring it off. What works for me, in some weird way, is to start with a protagonist, who then starts doing or experiencing something which adds other characters as well as the montages. I feel quite guilty when praised for meticulous plotting – the stories plot themselves during the writing, and constantly take me by surprise. However, rarely do I need to adjust anything which proves to be out of sync with what has followed.

        1. Starting with a protagonist is not weird at all, I’ve read of several authors whose main character suddenly pops into their head either demanding a story be written around them or somehow dictating the course of events.

          However, I’m quite in awe of you rarely needing to adjust anything in your narrative: I can only ‘plot meticulously’ while trying to retain some semblance of my original scenario. But then I haven’t actually got round to publishing anything bar the odd short story, unlike your prolific self… (Here’s where I’d stick a smiley face if I hadn’t been told it was rather naff.)

        1. I keep noting more parallels between Riggs’ novel and those old Welsh tales, Sue. For example, Miss Peregrine and her mentor Miss Avocet have bird names, as do other individuals who don’t appear in the story. They remind me of three mythical birds who, in the same tale of Branwen I mentioned in the review, sing to the surviving warriors and the head of Bran when they’re at Harlech (you remember Harlech, Sue, the castle you’ve yet to visit!). The sweet songs of all the birds in the world are said to be coarse compared to the singing of these three birds.

          In another Welsh medieval tale Culhwch and Olwen these birds are specifically identified as the Birds of Rhiannon, “the ones that rouse the dead and make the living sleep” — perhaps a reference to powers that Miss Peregrine and her ilk might have in the sequel to this novel.

  1. I wasn’t impressed by Rigg’s work, but you give it a valuable spin, Chris. I have to put in a word for WG Sebald, who used found photos to illustrate his novels dating from the 1990s. Reading Sebald, I always wonder which came first (photos or story), but his stories are so fascinating, his writing is so gorgeous and some of the photos so specific (e.g., silkworms, Roger Casement, erupting Vesuvius) that I suspect the two weave together in a way that even Sebald himself couldn’t separate.

      1. Sebald’s works are on my desert island books list. My advice, Chris: start with The Immigrants, move next to Austerlitz, and end with Rings of Saturn. The third is my favorite, but I’d love to know what you think of any of them.

        1. Thanks for your recommendations, Lizzie — I’ve a strong feeling you’ve reviewed one or more of these titles as the last two sound familiar, if so I must look them up (again).

  2. Great article Chris – I’ve just finished the book and this has given it a much needed new dimension. Felt overall it was a novel too much in search of a film deal (and sequel) to be really interesting, although the constituent parts were all there.

    1. I’m much in agreement with you, Jake; I’m not arguing this is a great book — too many narrative commonplaces, certainly, and the speech of Cairnholm’s townspeople bore no trace of Welshness about it but a lot of cliche swearing and not a few Americanisms — but it’s not a bad book either. Film options? No, I wouldn’t be surprised.

  3. I enjoyed this, but I did feel it lost focus, and the comment above about constituent parts hit the spot for me. It just felt a bit manufactured. I’m pleased it did get a film deal, because it is original, but I wonder how much the film will capture of that originality, and the real sadness at its heart.

  4. I am looking forward to seeing the film, especially for the special effects, and I am not sure that I will ever get around to reading the book, but I have enjoyed reading what you think about it. Ha ha I am going to be really naff, because I can be 🙂

    1. Not naff at all, Lynne, it’s not a great piece of literature and I’m sure you’ll have better things to do! Even if you don’t read the book though have a look at a copy in a library or bookshop just to see the vintage photos that inspired it, they really are peculiar.

      1. I will definitely have a look now you have said that magic word, peculiar, you never know I might even buy it. Its just that I am awful for finishing books. I did nearly finish one this holiday because of all the trains we went on, you can see so much scenery, then it becomes one big blur. Because we had visited Florence, I bought a Death in Tuscany in the train station there, we had 2 hours to wait. It’s set in Florence and the surrounding area, its a murder mystery, by Michele Giuttari and I am really enjoying it…..this is not a great a piece of literature, but I have nearly finished, which is really amazing for me. Back to the station, there is a huge bookshop were you can sit, drink coffee, eat and read books, and they had loads of books in English, it was a very enjoyable two hour wait. 🙂

        1. Wonderful that an Italian railway station should carry books in English. Can you imagine London’s Waterloo stocking Italian or any other foreign language books in their WH Smith’s?

  5. Watched the film but haven’t read the book, though I really loved the premise. I like the idea of basing a story on photos – I too remember Shooting the Past and it was brilliant! – and Anthony Horowitz has based his latest novel on someone following the clues in an unfinished novel, which kind of sounds like fiction eating itself but intrigues nonetheless.

    Great review of a novel novel and lovely info about the Welsh islands 🙂

    1. What did you think of the film, Lynn? Seems, from the trailer, typical Tim Burton, but I would have liked a bit more of a Gothick feel, maybe sepia-tinged for the Home (in the manner of the swap from monochrome to technicolor when Dorothy goes to the Land of Oz). Still, I like the metafictional touches that films and fiction sometimes incorporate in their medium.

      Glad you liked the stuff about Welsh islands and mythology — would be nice if the author had unconsciously picked up on those parallels, a bit like Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘morphic resonance’ where ideas seemingly get picked up independently out of the ether, as it were!

      1. I thought the film was good up to two thirds in, then it lost its way, though I find Burton a little like that these days. Perhaps we all run out of ways to tell stories in the end. Like the idea of picking ideas from the ether – perhaps that’s were some of them come from, they’re just flying around, waiting for brain to catch them 🙂

  6. I’ve not read the book yet, but my 16-yr-old daughter loved it. We went to see the film – and it started off well, but diverged from the book so much with a whole different ending that she was disappointed. I thought Eva Green is rather wonderful as Miss Peregrine, and the others in the all-star cast are underused in their cameos (Judi Dench, Chris O’Dowd, Samuel L Jackson, Rupert Everett, Trevor Stamp). The kids were mostly great. Jacob’s dad (O’Dowd) is an ornithologist in the film, so that fits those islands well (plus gives scope for Hitchcock references etc).

    1. As this is the first title in a trilogy, Annabel, it may be that those underused luvvies will reappear in the film sequels (if this does better at the box office than, say, The Golden Compass did, the screen adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights). Probably best, I suppose, not to compare film and book — the former is rarely up to the standard of the latter — and just take it on its own merits which, from your comments, are not lacking!

      1. The Golden Compass film tanked didn’t it – although I heard wonderful things about the stage adaptation of Northern Lights (wish I could have seen that).

        The Miss P film lost its way when it tacked on the different ending which descended into pure Doctor Who, but anything Tim Burton does is interesting … Daughter is now reading and enjoying Book 2.

        1. I’m looking forward with high hopes to the upcoming BBC Wales adaptation of Northern Lights as a serial, I think, will allow the story to develop a little more. Missed the much-praised stage version too, like you.

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s