But these weren't the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, the kind a seven-year-old might be able to wrap his mind around—they were monsters with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don't recognize them for what they are until it's too late.
Like the monsters, the enchanted-island story was also a truth in disguise. Compared to the horrors of mainland Europe, the children's home that had taken in my grandfather must've seemed like a paradise, and so in his stories it had become one: a safe haven of endless summers and guardian angels and magical children, who couldn't really fly or turn invisible or lift boulders, of course. The peculiarity for which they'd been hunted was simply their Jewishness. They were orphans of war, washed up on that little island in a tide of blood. What made them amazing wasn't that they had miraculous powers; that they had escaped the ghettos and gas chambers was miracle enough. (17)
I've been hearing great things about this book basically since it came out, not least from John Green who went to the same university as the author, Ransom Riggs. I'd also seen it's intriguing cover several times while working/browsing the Scholastic Warehouse Sale shelves. At the most recent sale, they also had it's sequel Hollow City (review) so I thought it was about time to read them.
The story centers around Jacob Portman, a Floridian teenager wasting away the summer working in a family-owned business that he hates. He's interrupted one day by a strange call from his grandfather, so he leaves to go and check on him, and discovers his grandfather being attacked by some kind of hideous beast in the woods behind his house. Unfortunately, Jacob's grandfather passes away as a result. While helping his dad and aunt clean up his grandfather's house, Jacob discovers some very strange photographs of children from the orphanage in Wales where his grandfather spent the early years of his life after fleeing encroaching Nazi forces. He also finds a letter addressed to his grandfather from a woman. Feeling traumatized by his experience witnessing his grandfather's attack and death, and encouraged by his new therapist, Jacob embarks with his father on a journey to the small island in Wales that houses his grandfather's orphanage. When he gets there, craziness ensues! Spoiler alert: it's supernatural craziness.
First off, let me say that I've never seen a book like this before: a fictional tale intertwined with real, oftentimes haunting "found" photographs from the past. It makes me wonder if Riggs started with the photos and crafted a story around them, or had a story in mind and then searched out photos to intersect with it. Or perhaps it was a bit of both. I'm sure that he's talked about it in interviews and whatnot, especially with a film adaptation on the way. I know that he has collected the found photographs for a while, so I would imagine it was a mixture of the two. The photos added so much to the story, not only contributing visual breaks from pages of text, but also giving readers a picture (literally) of the characters that are being introduced. Some of the photos are quite creepy, which I unintentionally discovered when I decided to continue reading at 3:00 a.m,, alone, in my possibly haunted house, and immediately encountered the page with the picture of Emma Bloom. I'm an insomniac already, but that photo clinched my lack of sleep that night. When you read the book, you'll probably understand, but just for reference, the photo is of a young girl, in what seems to be a pitch black room, holding a glowing, floating orb of light. The creepiest thing is the way the light reflects on her eyes. Yeah, it's terrifying.
I loved this story. It was so engaging, and while some things were slightly predictable, it was always interesting. Especially with the novelty of the interwoven photographs, as I've already mentioned. The characters are so well fleshed out, which is not always the case when reading supernatural mystery type books, and most especially when a story has a couple of main characters and then a large secondary cast of ensemble characters. It began with their physical description, both in words and with the old school photograph that represented them. To derive supernatural powers from those old school photographs, which look weird often because of tricks of the light, oddities in the film, etc. is just such an awesome idea. Then to go further and to build a world around that? One that lives parallel to our own?
I do have some questions that weren't answered re: the time travel issue. But I suspended my disbelief, especially for this first book, because I was so enchanted with the platform and the characters and the story. My questions got a bit more pointed as I made my way through the sequel.
Unrelated to plot or character development, all of these kids seem to have no fear of swimming in the ocean in the dark night, the idea of which horrifies me to no end. So kudos to them for that bit of bravery.
At the end, when Jacob leaves his dad behind...even considering all of the circumstances, and understanding what the situation is with him and the other Peculiars, it's an amazingly powerful, big decision for a 16-year-old. Especially when you think about the fact that Jacob is pretty certain he's never going to see his father again.
I also realized during this book that, while I appreciate a lot of things about Goodreads—in fact, most things—I've determined not to judge books based on the main reviews on their pages, because I often don't agree with those people, and it has discouraged me in the past from reading those books. For example, when I went to the reviews for this book, I saw about four that had it at two stars and said it was overrated. Well, maybe that's their opinion, and maybe it even is overrated, but that doesn't mean that I'm not going to like it or find it worthwhile or be touched by it.