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