Judging a book from its cover, I was expecting to love Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The conceit of the book is that it is anchored by a set of creepy found photographs assembled by author Ransom Riggs to tell a creepy story about a young man finding himself in a world of creepy things.
And to the book’s credit, the opening chapter is fantastic. The atmosphere is right en pointe as young Jacob listens to his grandfather Abe talk to him about some of the photographs in his collection. The grandfather was a Jewish orphan who fled Poland in the late 1930s and found his way as a refugee to a strange orphanage in an isolated section of an isolated island in isolated Wales. He weaves fantastical story about the kids he grew up with, and the monsters he faced, until Jacob gets old enough to believe that the monsters and the children are figments of his grandfather’s imagination, and the monsters are, at best, metaphorical representations of the horrors that were rising at the time.
But as Jacob approaches his sixteenth birthday, his grandfather’s health takes a turn for the worse. He starts seeing the monsters again. And while Jacob’s father and aunt are sure it’s the Alzheimers talking, Jacob soon learns that the monsters in Abe’s story aren’t just metaphorical.
The first part of this book is everything that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children should be. There are scares in shadowy corners, and the narrative is alternately creepy, sweet and a little sad, as Jacob and his grandfather grow apart, leaving Abe to face the monsters alone. The tone of the book, however, changes, as Jacob is taken to a psychiatrist to try and cure him of the monsters that Jacob is now able to see. The focus of the story shifts to the mystery of Abe’s photographs. Were they real? Are the children they show actually real? There are letters referring to the orphanage in Wales, so Jacob’s psychiatrist suggests a road trip with Jacob and his father so that Jacob can find the orphanage and perhaps exorcise the demons within him.
Metaphorically, I mean.
But the orphanage turns out to be all-too real, but hidden in a surprising way. Jacob discovers children from the orphanage who still look, dress and act as if it’s 1940 (though they are aware that time has passed), and that’s the least of their peculiar abilities. All of them have had some circus background to hide their differences, until the world became just too dangerous even for that. There is also a young woman named Emma who is horrified by the idea that Jacob is Abe’s grandson.
It’s all overseen by a strict schoolmistress character named Miss Peregrine, who can transform into the bird of the same name. And, unfortunately, here is where the story drags to a halt, because here Miss Peregrine sits Jacob down and does a very schoolmistress thing: she proceeds to instruct Jacob on the rules of the world. All of them, as far I can make out. There’s lengthy descriptions about how the “peculiars” came to be, the “Ymbrynes” (like Miss Peregrine) who watch over them, and the Wights and Hollowghasts that are arrayed against them. There is reference to an experiment that created the Hollowghasts that likely resulted in the Tunguska explosion of 1908.
There is rather more explanation here than the story needs, not to mention a lengthy circus segment where the children show off their peculiar abilities, but author Ransom Riggs isn’t writing one book but a trilogy. I’m sure all of the information may come in useful at a later date. However, its presentation soured me on the novel. Combined with a rather abrupt ending to lead into the second book, I’m not entirely sure I want to read further.
There are good things about the second half of the novel. It’s quite obvious why Tim Burton would want to adapt this into a movie that’s due out later this year. The material he has to work with should make for an interesting film. For me, I was intrigued by the mysterious events that suggested the Hollowghasts were coming progressively closer. Then there was the relationship between Emma and Jacob.
This is not what you would call normal, or possibly healthy. Emma and Abe were “paramours” (as Miss Peregrine calls it) back in 1940, before Abe felt that he couldn’t hide away from the monsters and left the orphanage to fight them. Emma has been holding a candle for him ever since. Though the children are locked in a time loop keeping them in a single day in 1940, they are aware of the passage of each loop, so while they don’t age physically, Emma is still effectively 88 years old.
The fact that a romance blossoms so easily between Jacob and Emma is only explainable as hormones, in Jacob’s case, or taking up her lover’s grandson on the rebound in the case of Emma. There is some feel of chemistry between the two, and such a romance is decidedly peculiar and perhaps in keeping with the story, but it feels tacked on and convenient, especially when initially paranoid Emma goes from threatening Jacob with a knife and kissing him within the span of two chapters.
The children themselves don’t feel fully formed. Yes, they are peculiar, but are they insane? How are they reacting to the fact that they are trapped in a time bubble where a day in 1940 repeats again and again, and they remember all of it, even though they themselves don’t age? How do they react to being kept prisoners, even for their own protection against the monstrous outside world, for seventy-one years? How does Miss Peregrin keep order? Are they scared of her?
Author Riggs provides some hints in this direction, even suggesting that the kids go down to the nearby town periodically and ransack the place out of sheer boredom (as the place resets day after day, their actions aren’t remembered by the townsfolk). It also stretches disbelief that a group of people could be kept in close quarters for seventy-one years without changing personalities, becoming soulmates, hated enemies or both. Again, Riggs hints at jealousies, rivalries and loves between the various children, and the fact that they cling to their juvenile tendencies even as senior citizens is somewhat creepy, and in keeping with the title.
But I’m disappointed that Riggs didn’t explore these concepts deeper, bringing the story to a close quickly with a monster attack and some admittedly decent action. Jacob does get to say goodbye to his father (an excellent scene), but the children themselves don’t have a chance to really express their own agency. Even as they fight to save Miss Peregrine, they don’t get to confront her over whether their prison is sustainable or, indeed, anything more than a prison. Abe chose to go out and fight the monsters; why was he the only one? The children’s final decision should have been cast in a similar light.
Unfortunately, I feel that the plot was compressed to make room for the rest of the trilogy. The lengthy explanations and the rushed ending make Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children an average book that doesn’t live up to its potential, and that’s a shame.