Jacob Portman’s grandfather has always told him crazy stories about the orphanage he grew up in during World War II. He even had a collection of strange photographs of children doing peculiar things to accompany these stories. Despite all this, Jacob always dismissed the stories as tall tales. Then his grandfather is killed by some sort of creature right in front of him. In order to deal with his grief (and guilt) and to make sense of what happened, Jacob and his father travel to the mysterious island which houses the orphanage, long-since-abandoned. It is there that Jacob begins to unravel the story of his grandfather.
Ransom Riggs uses vintage photos interspersed in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and it isn’t hard to understand the appeal. With these often creepy old photographs, even everyday moments have a sort of mystery about them: the people featured in the photographs are long-dead, the places they inhabit are changed, and the aging of the photographs lends a sense of melancholy or eeriness to what would otherwise be a normal photograph. The photographs present in this story are the best part, which is both a good and bad thing: it is good because it creates a depth to the story that would otherwise be lacking, and it is bad because it only further highlights the problems with Riggs’s prose, story, and characterization, which are all sorely lacking.
The first third of the novel is the most compelling as Jacob provides some back story and describes the rather brutal murder of his grandfather. The initial exploration of the mysterious island is also very interesting, and then the book takes a turn for the ridiculous and loses steam quite quickly. It is here that the gap between the photographs and the prose is most noticeable: while the prose is just serviceable, the photos offer such potential for great storytelling that readers can’t help but be disappointed by what is offered. Many readers will struggle with the authenticity of Jacob’s voice as a narrator: at times he sounds like a sixteen year old boy, and at times he uses the stilted vocabulary of a tweedy professor. This uneven narration only further illuminates the novel’s flaws.
It is clear that Riggs has his eyes on future volumes (the book’s movie rights were optioned before it was even published), and perhaps because of this, he wastes no time on character development (to the story’s detriment) and instead focuses on setting up the story, which isn’t anything new. It’s the well-trodden “chosen one” trope, and it’s not even particularly well done, which makes it that much harder to swallow. The end of the novel clearly panders to the inevitability of a sequel, offering readers no closure whatsoever.*
That being said, some will enjoy this one. It’s certainly a twist on the paranormal genre. Casual fans of stories like X-Men might enjoy this one, as will fans of Neil Gaiman, if they’re looking for something that’s pretty light on substance and character development. This reviewer probably won’t pick up future titles in the inevitable series, but she will probably flip through to look at the vintage photographs, which gave her nightmares and lit up her imagination.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. Quirk Publishing: 2011. Library copy.
*After writing this review, Quirk announced on August 25th that a sequel is indeed in the works, to be published in the Spring of 2013. Told you so.