The name Ransom Riggs conjures to mind a grizzled man, undoubtedly in a fedora, who has dedicated his life to hunting down Nazis or, at a really artsy push, possibly Atlantis.
It doesn’t seem to lend itself to the cover of a book for Young Adults, adorned with a vintage photograph of a little girl and flourishes of flowery Victorian illustration.
But then that’s the nice thing about Riggs and his novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: it isn’t quite what you’re expecting going in.
The story is a curious mix of fantasy, sci-fi, and vintage photography, and it’s one of the best Young Adult books I’ve read in a long time. It’s got some amazing writing in it, not least of all an opening chapter I can only describe as ‘perfect’, rivaling even Across the Universe‘s first chapter as one of the best standalone pieces of writing I have ever read.
I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After. Like many of the extraordinary things to come, it involved my grandfather, Abraham Portman.
Growing up, Grandpa Portman was the most fascinating person I knew. He had lived in an orphanage, fought in wars, crossed oceans by steamship and deserts on horseback, performed in circuses, knew everything about guns and self-defense and surviving in the wilderness, and spoke at least three languages that weren’t English. It all seemed unfathomably exotic to a kid who’d never left Florida, and I begged him to regale me with stories whenever I saw him.
You couldn’t do much better than that beginning in terms of sheer elegance – right away, you have your hook, the ‘extraordinary things’ and ‘terrible shock’ that should pique a reader’s interest enough to read on a page or two, along with a nicely discrete set-up of the protagonist’s age and location, things you want to explain in a Young Adult book while desperately hoping to steer clear from The Babysitter’s Club curse of the let-me-tell-you-about-everyone-I-know-especially-people-who-don’t-pertain-in-anyway-to-this-story opening chapter.
Sadly, like Across the Universe, Miss Peregrine can’t sustain the momentum it starts with, and the novel begins to suffer from unthought-through logic and bad storytelling decisions. (Unlike Across the Universe, however, it’s still worth reading past the prologue.)
Watch out! From here on out, this post containers spoilers.
The story is told by protagonist Jacob, an American teenager who’s… not entirely likeable. He starts out well as he narrates the story of his childhood, dominated by his grandfather’s incredible stories, but this quickly turns into a lot of Jacob telling us about his character and never showing it.
I was shocked a few chapters in to discover the boy thought of himself as a coward, a ‘weak… loser’ who ‘couldn’t even protect [him]self in high school’. I’d never seen him act afraid. In fact, in the first chapter he was downright reckless, running into woods ‘crawling with snakes… wild boars… alligators’, looking for his grandfather. Still, it’s a first-person story and telling is an easy trap to fall into – and not the worst of the book’s offences.
Far worse is how slow Jacob is, for a character who is meant to be smart. Now: this is a funny one, I have to admit. From an audience point of view, I pick up a book called Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and I know there’s going to be a home for peculiar children (most likely run by a Miss Peregrine who, in turn, is most probably ‘peculiar’ herself; I’d be willing to take a wild stab in the dark and guess she can turn into a peregrine; I’d be right).
I start reading and pages in, I know the ‘fairy stories’ young Jacob decided were hokum are real, I know the monster Jacob’s psychiatrist convinces him he didn’t see over his grandfather’s body was really there, and I’m pretty damn sure – no matter what Jacob’s father says – that his grandfather wasn’t having an affair, but off doing something ‘peculiar’ all that time he was away from home.
If Jacob knew those things too, I’d call shenanigans; I know because I’m reading a story with a logical structure to it. I know a clue when I see it. And, though Riggs is guilty of throwing whole loaves instead of breadcrumbs, they’re clues and patterns which wouldn’t make sense for the characters to see – there’s nothing logicial and structured about real life. I want to see Jacob struggle, and discover, and be amazed.
I just don’t want him to take so bloody long about it.
Some places are worse than others. After Jacob’s father told him about an adulterous letter in his grandfather’s possession, I was – frankly – annoyed when Jacob thought it might have been written by the same woman he was looking to find to get the truth of things, Miss Peregrine. I wanted to yell at my Kindle that of course it was from her and there was nothing lovey-dovey about it. Good old Miss Peregrine wanted Jacob’s grandfather back in her home of peculiar children. I turned out to be wrong there, but righter than Jacob who – weirdly – decided his grandfather must have asked his secret lover to take on the name of his old, dead headmistress.
I still don’t understand why.
I can only assume Riggs was trying to link Miss Peregrine and the mysterious letter in the reader’s mind but this felt clumsy to me. Why would anyone take on the identity of a dead woman who was – presumably – a good twenty, thirty years older than the man she was writing love letters to? Why would you go to the bother of assuming an identity then put a bunch of incriminating prose about your sordid affair on paper? And anyway, wouldn’t you try to protect the other guy’s identity – the one who was married with kids…?
Jacob’s thought process often felt clunky to me. Maybe you can argue that, as an awkward teenager, it’s understandable, but he often came across as inconsistent, depending on what the situation called for. Sometimes he was a smart-arse, fast on his feet, and other times he just babbled.
The worst offendor, though, was when he (finally) discovered the secret – the passageway that led him from modern-day middle-of-nowhere, Wales, to Miss Peregrine’s home, hidden in time, where the same day in 1940 loops over and over again, to protect the peculiar children from harm and stop them from aging.
As a reader, I had known this moment was coming since I cracked open the book and, while I’d feel cheated if he realised right away (because no one’s first thought walking out the door in the morning is, ‘Wow, this sure looks hidden in time’), Jacob took so long to realise he was no longer where he’d been, it became ridiculous.
Although the small Welsh island had been described as old-fashioned – too tucked out of the way to bother with, all electricity run off of generators and no phone signal in sight – it was also, distinctively, modern. The first paragraph about it specifically mentioned ‘satellite dishes sprouting from [the] roofs’ of the houses and ‘foul-smelling diesel generators buzz[ing] on every corner like angry wasps’, yet when Jacob finds himself back plum in the middle of World War II, he doesn’t notice these are missing – or think it’s weird that everything is horse-drawn, despite him never seeing anything bigger than a sheep before, or click that everyone’s wearing clothes a good seventy years out of date. He comments on it all, for the benefit of the reader, but he doesn’t think about it.
And that’s where Riggs really falls down as an author. He doesn’t think either.
In one of the pivotal scenes of the book, right at the climax as Jacob, his love interest (who I’ll get to in a minute; I need a proper paragraph and a strong cup of tea to tackle that one), and his newfound friends in the peculiar children are in the gravest danger. A monster who thrives on eating peculiar children is after them, and it’s time for Jacob to finally step up, to become a hero, to – courageously – run away.
The idea is to lead the monster away from the others. He’s already successfully got it away from his friends but his over-the-top stubborn love interest (a later paragraph, a later paragraph) is still in harm’s way, so Jacob lures it away. In the worst thought out plan I’ve ever heard of.
In a stroke of what I would, in a less generous mood, call an actual stroke, Jacob decides to lead the monster straight to the passageway to the safe, hidden home of Miss Peregrine. The monster, Jacob has been reliably informed, can’t go in there. Which is all well and dandy. But at no point did he loop away, or lead the monster somewhere else, or give his love interest the slightest bit of time to get there – to safety – ahead of him. He just bolted straight for it.
One can only assume that the monster, tired from its little run, will just sit and rest at the door, waiting for dear little Emma to wander up and be eaten. She has no where else to go – she lives through the passageway (it’s the one and only entrance) and she must, specifically, not be out of Miss Peregrine’s home for long, or else its magic will wear off, and she’ll whither and die. The home which now has a hungry monster in front of it. Which is invisible to everyone but Jacob.
Terrible. Terrible plan.
If this was a character flaw in Jacob, if he’d been called out on his brash stupidity, it would be fine – good, even – but everyone treats it as a brave, bold, heroic action.
Emma hugged me, pressing her cheek against mine. “I know [your grandfather] would’ve been proud of you,” she said.
No one realises how lucky Emma was not to have been killed, which makes me worry that Riggs didn’t see how lucky she was not to have been killed, either. The plot of this story – very much – drives its characters at times.
Seriously. Enough with the photos
Riggs is also clearly guilty of writing for himself, rather than writing what makes sense. I got the distinct impression he was determined to shoehorn in the vintage, found photographs which run alongside the story at any cost, whether it made sense or not. (Usually not.)
Strange, mesmerising and sometimes downright creepy photos are mixed in with the text, and I can see why they would spark ideas and storylines in an author’s head, but I’m not convinced printing them in the book was the best idea.
They disrupt the flow of the story more than they add to it, as the author finds various reasons for his characters to stop and look at photographs, or take them.
“Fine, you don’t have to take my word for it,” he said. “I got pictures!”
Some pictures – especially those early on, describing the peculiar children – feel natural, and it’s certainly easier to understand Jacob’s feelings seeing what he’s seeing, but there are various slideshow moments throughout when the characters stop what they’re doing to show Jacob photographs which don’t make sense with the characters and powers being described.
It also becomes distracting as he uses different photographs – full of very different looking people – to act as the same characters. In a book with characters who do not age as a major plot point, it’s distracting to have a wild array of different aged, different looking people portraying one character.
The same person, apparently. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Quirk Books
It might be more forgivable if the set-up to include them didn’t feel so clumsy, though.
At one point, when describing the monsters who hunt peculiar children, Miss Peregrine shows Jacob a photo of a little girl, crouching on the road. The shadow of a man is reaching out toward her in what could be construed as a bit of a creepy image.
Miss Peregrine tells us:
“…she was snatched by a wight as she waited for the school bus. A camera was found at the scene with this undeveloped picture inside.”
“Who took it?”
“The wight himself. They are fond of dramatic gestures, and invariably leave behind some taunting memento.”
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Quirk Books
It strikes me as incredible that, at no point in the writing process, someone didn’t flag this up as, perhaps, a bit much. This is an old black-and-white photograph. This wasn’t just snapped on someone’s phone, this required an actual camera, and set-up, and possibly a tripod.
The idea that a monster, about to pounce on a little girl in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day, would stop to set up a camera – and that she wouldn’t use that time to run away – strikes me as ridiculous.
But the biggest culprit comes at the end of the story, in the middle of the villain’s grandiose monologue about how evil and cunning he was (which feels a bit unnecessary, given how many loaves of bread were chucked at our heads about it). In the middle of the scene – the Big Reveal – Jacob stops everything to describe how the children at his school once defaced a picture of their bus driver.
And includes the photo of the bus driver.
Okay, I’m being a little unfair. He realises the villain was his middle-school bus driver.
And his tree surgeon.
And his grandfather’s neighbour.
The villain has been hiding in plain sight all these years! It’s horrific! Dun, dun, duuun!
But somehow, inserting the photo takes the big reveal from creepy to ridiculous in a moment. It makes no sense for the villain to have posed as a bus driver. He had to actually… drive a bus. Full of kids. Why would he do that?
No, really. Why?
He was entirely unable to talk to Jacob, or spy on him, or have any part in his life; he’d be too busy driving a bus. As far as demonic plans go, it’s not one of the best.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Quirk Books
It was a moment that required pages of set up and explanation, in the middle of an important scene, just to jam in a photograph that the author found interesting. It seemed self-indulgent and unnecessary – especially given it’s also revealed the villain was posing as Jacob’s psychiatrist.
That’s a massive misuse of trust. It’s a horrible betrayal, a violation. And a wonderful plot point.
Jacob realises his newfound friends are only in danger because of him – the villain only learned of the little Welsh island from him, only found the entrance because of him… The emotion, the drama, of that moment is exquisite.
Well. It should be.
It feels undermined, coming after the fact that – gasp! – the man also drove the school bus. There was no point to it, beyond working in another photograph. It felt wholly unnecessary.
Which segues us neatly into the love interest storyline.
Disturbing, unnecessary, and vaguely incestuous romance
I must admit, romance on the side is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. I find it goes wrong all too easily – especially in Young Adult fiction, which tends to lay it on thick – but compared to some other novels (I’m looking at you again Across the Universe – you hang your blurb in shame!), this was downright tasteful.
Jacob only ‘sparked’ at Emma’s touch once (nearly impressive) and he never felt like a monster was trying to claw its way out of him. And – incredibly – no one got raped, not even once.
Miss Peregrine’s home for peculiar children is, magically, situated in a single day in 1940, though the children experience and remember everything that’s happened to them as consecutive days. This makes Emma Bloom eighty-eight years old to Jacob’s sixteen.
She doesn’t entirely act as a child – all the children live in a strange state, somewhere between being disturbing Lost Boys and wise beyond their years; it’s one of the more interesting ideas in the book, and sadly one of the more neglected. Though we do get some fantastic gems like:
‘Olive raised her hand excitedly. “I’ll be seventy-five and a half next week!”‘
But the fact remains she is, and neither of them think much of it. It bothered me that it wasn’t a sticking point, but not as much as the discovery that the adulterous letter I mentioned earlier turned out to be from Emma to Jacob’s grandfather.
[T]hey were admirers, paramours, sweethearts.
It’s all too easy to see why Emma would fall for Jacob – he’s described as looking just like his grandfather, and Emma is obsessed with him in a way only a sixteen-year-old girl knows to be – but it’s hard to understand why Jacob would fall for Emma. He admits himself that ‘dating your grandfather’s ex would practically be incest’, but goes for it anyway without offering any good reason.
It feels like an interesting idea – a boy dealing with something he’s too young to handle, a girl desperately trying to cling on to her first love – but that idea crumbles immediately. Jacob decides he quite fancies her regardless and forgets the whole incest thing, not even feeling strange about it after a quick snog, and Emma seems to like him for him. Presumably. She doesn’t moan out the wrong name at least.
It feels flat, and a little false too – it doesn’t seem natural that sparks would fly between them; on their first meeting, Emma trusses Jacob up like a turkey and marches him at knife-point to Miss Peregrine, but they both seem to get over it quickly. It feels like a big tick on a rom-com checklist: boy and girl don’t like each other at first? Check! Hilarious misunderstanding? Check. Boy compares dating her to incest and decides he’s always fancied a dabble? Check and check!
It doesn’t help that the story also tosses in a resident ‘wacky’ best friend with green hair and pantomime villains in the third act. It feels a strange mix of original and well-worn trope, but somehow, all together, it works.
Mix of original and well-worn trope
The story is interesting. Although the villains could have used more exposition – a lot of things a lot less vital were given a lot more – the idea is terrific, with a lot of room to expand into more stories and the world is a place you want to learn about. The chapters flowed well, and the language worked nicely. In a few places, the descriptions felt more poetic and heavy-handed than a sixteen-year-old boy would really note, but that’s another common pitfall of first-person prose. I blame the technique on that one.
I absolutely blame the writer – an American, if Ransom didn’t give it away – for not doing quite enough research into how people in Wales actually talk, though. As a Brit, I felt the often-abused phrase ‘taking a piss’ instead of ‘taking the piss’ really took the piss.
Still, it was nice to see a book, especially one which concentrated so much on the war, talk about places in Britain beyond London, and the writing in terms of structure, if not always detail, was very well done.
The end, too, is a perfect end; set-up for a sequel, but enough closure for a single story. Not tons of closure, maybe, but personally I love an open-ended story. I want to walk away from a book wondering what will happen next, I want to be thinking about the characters for days after. Happily-ever-after is a death sentence for adventure.