Beware the Crooked Man

John Connolly: The Book of Lost Things
Illustrated by Anne M Anderson
Hodder 2017 (2006)

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

What attracted me about The Book of Lost Things was, first, the title with its intimation of mystery and, second, the cover illustration by Robert Ryan with its suggestion of the sinister wild wood of the fairytale imagination. Then, as I read it, it morphed. At times it felt like a scrapbook filled with pictures, cuttings and ephemera saved as souvenirs. Occasionally it reminded me of a Commonplace Book, those more literary scrapbooks whose owners copy passages that catch their eye, aphorisms, and quotes, or of a jotter in which random thoughts are noted down in the hopes that they will make sense at some future point.

So what is it essentially? It is a novel about folktales and fairytales, especially the latter with their implicit morals and rules for living an honest life. It’s also a story about living in a fictional dream-like world in real time which somehow becomes real. And it’s a narrative about how living in a fairytale world can reveal secrets and the difference between truth and lies.

David is a bookish youngster growing up in London during the second world war. His father is a distant figure — as many middleclass fathers were —  doing hush-hush work with the government. But his mother is dying and he thinks his sacrifices and ritualised repetitive behaviour may allow her to live. But his world falls apart when she dies, his father remarries, they move out of central London and a new brother is born. These stressful life events, the cumulative effect of which affects physical and mental health, take their toll on the sensitive 12-year-old: his OCD-like rituals and waking dreams mean fruitless visits to a psychiatrist. He hears books having whispered conversations and sees a twisted contorted figure in his bedroom. And then there comes the moment when the Second World War comes to meet him.

The Book of Lost Things is not a perfect novel. I found it uneven, over-detailed in parts, slow-paced at times, and — just once or twice — anachronistic (‘sizeist’ is used at one point, a term at odds with a tale set in the first half of the 20th century). But as a portrayal of a young mind struggling to make sense of a world gone mad by resorting to fairytales and myth it made absolute sense. As with all good portal fantasies, David finds himself thrown into a world where classic fairytales become trammelled up in the protagonist’s own experiences, hopes and fears. In particular his despair at losing a mother and gaining a stepmother means he has conflicting thoughts about women. His quest is to find the truth about his mother, but his antipathy towards Rose, his father’s new wife, gives rise to all manner of frightening female figures, some producing repulsive offspring, others threatening torture and death.

Tom Tit Tot, the English Rumpelstiltskin, by Johan Batten, in Joseph Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales (1890) (image credit: http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/illustrations/rumpelstiltskin/battentimtot1.html)

The other character to feature is the terrible figure David thinks of as the Crooked Man. Less benign than the nonsense rhyme Crooked Man, he is the personification of all the pent-up confusion and anger David feels about his situation, most of it focused on David’s half-brother George. The author explicitly draws on the story of Rumpelstiltskin in relaying the motifs of child-snatcher and the power one can gain from knowing someone’s name. The Crooked Man is twisted by name and twisted by nature, but his own power comes from the twisted thoughts his victims have, thoughts born exactly from the feelings of a boy who feels neglected and unloved, and is thrashing around with the frustrations that have arisen from those feelings.

Interwoven with the quest that David has embarked on are Connolly’s versions of classic fairytales largely drawn from the Grimm versions and also classic mythology. These are often very contorted versions of the tales, in which characters may have different motivations and appearances, and where conclusions aren’t what is expected.

This edition includes not only woodcuts by Anne Anderson but also 50% extra text in the form of an Afterword, notes, a Q & A section and bonus material on certain tale types. It’s clear that all these extras inform us how much Connolly’s 2006 novel was indebted to the fairytale tradition, but the novel itself is no slavish retelling.

The Book of Lost Things is, then, an adult view of the nightmarish experience of growing up, and it suggests how traditional tales relate to that nightmare and how they can help heal the traumas that childhood bring. It’s not totally satisfying in its telling but it does speak truth. There is resolution at the end but it’s realistic: there’s no happy-ever-after but instead a recognition that lives are messy and that death comes to us all. It’s not how long we live but how we led that life. And that, I would think, is what fairytales are really for.

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19 thoughts on “Beware the Crooked Man

  1. Although flawed, this sounds a fascinating read, Chris. An interesting mix of fairy tale and psychology. Poor David sounds like an interesting, if difficult hero. Great review too.

    1. It’s all told from David’s point of view so you get a child’s-eye view of things. It reminded me of similar scenarios I imagined for myself around that age, in which I was the protagonist; and all those common anxieties about bogies under the bed and faces in the patterned wallpaper…

      1. Yes, when writing from a youngish child’s viewpoint, there’s a lot of scope for a layer of imagination over reality. The world can be a terrifying place when you’re young – not that it gets any less scary in some ways! Great review Chris

  2. Intriguing, but you leave me with mixed feelings as to whether I’d want to read it or not. When one tackles such a complex theme, the challenge is to do no less than a perfect job or perhaps ’twere best left undone.

    1. I’d imagine it’s rather different from the way you’d tackle the same theme, Col. I’ve seen it described as a darker version of the Narnia stories, though that doesn’t say very much other than that some reviewers only have that series as a reference point. It spoke to me as one bookish child with a vivid imagination to another, and that may be the case with you too.

    1. Thanks, Cap’n, it’s a haunting novel alright. It also has a bit of a contemporary resonance, undreamt of when it was first written. Setting the novel during World War II when Britain felt alone against Hitler may have accounted for one aspect of Connolly’s concept of the Crooked Man.

      But we’re now also familiar with the Steve Bannon phrase employed by Trump, Crooked Hillary, an epithet which served to distract from the real crook, the man himself. The Crooked Man, to rejuvenate himself, needed to persuade David to betray his step-brother, to take on the guilt which properly belonged to the Crooked Man. In Trump’s case the ruse seems to have worked. Let’s hope it’s not forever.

  3. MrsB_inthehills

    Oh, I don’t know about this – I enjoy a dark book every now and then but not a depressing one, which is what this seems to be. And why is it that sometimes the most fascinating and satisfying thing about a book is its title?

    1. Actually young David — *spoiler alert!* — comes through in the end; it’s just his subsequent adult life that’s a bit more melancholy, though probably not in a depressing way, just more matter of fact. It’s not as bad as the Pevensie children in the Narnia books who — another *SPOILER ALERT* — die in a train crash!

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