September 7, 2012

Review: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
Published: 2006, Atria Books
Genre: Adult Fantasy 
Source: Library book
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For in every adult there dwells the child that was, and in every child there lies the adult that will be.

I ended up reading this book due to the recommendation Courtney made months ago. She's much more into darker novels than I am, but this is a dark book that reworks well-known fairy tales. And after realizing that this is classified as adult fiction, there was simply no way I could refuse to read this.

The protagonist David has lived his life following a very strict set of self-imposed rules. He lives in England at the onset of World War II. His mother is gradually dying of cancer while his father is busy working long hours. Thus David does what he can to impose order and regularity upon his life, hoping that these rules will be enough to save his mother and return his life to a semblance of balance. But they're not, and soon after his mother's death, David's father remarries and they're relocated to his stepmother's house a slight distance from the city. Still reeling from his mother's death and the knowledge that his rules don't really guarantee security, David has a hard time adjusting to life with his stepmother Rose and new half-brother Georgie as his father works even later hours.

David’s mother instilled a love for stories, especially fairy tales, retellings, and epic fantasies – those stories that idealized life and the human condition. And so after her death David unsurprisingly turns even more inward and focuses on stories. And, strangely, those stories start to call out to him. David sees glimpses of an otherworldly man and the gap between his home’s sunken garden and the woods calls to him. No one believes anything David says, and so he takes it upon himself to follow the summonings to a new world. After arriving in this fairy world, David embarks on a journey to find his mother, whose voice has also been calling out to him. But along the way David comes to realize that nothing is as he imagined it, the world of fantasy a dangerous place indeed.

The Book of Lost Things features a fascinating portrayal of fractured fairy tales. In this world, Little Red Riding Hood seduced the wolf and created a whole new breed of half-human half-wolf beings. Childe Roland is a gay knight. Sleeping Beauty’s potential rescuers never leave her palace. The dwarfs are forced into taking care of Snow White. Rumpelstiltskin, known here as the Crooked Man, is a terrifying force to behold. I am sure there are tons of other fairy-tale references here that I completely missed, but it was interesting to see how Connolly created different, darker interpretations of those tales I did know. This is a world I enjoyed reading about, but definitely one I would never want to experience myself.

At its most basic level, this is a coming of age story, where David must learn to navigate life not only without his mother, but without any true parental influence. Time and again in this fantasy world David will form an alliance with an adult (mostly men), only to have it dissolve soon afterwards. For David to find out the truth about what happened to his mother and find a way home again using the king’s mysterious Book of Lost Things, he must learn to rely on himself. Besides dealing with the reconciliation between childhood and adulthood, the story also grapples with many other important questions throughout the book, such as how to deal with the cycle of life and death, and what it truly means to be human.

This is a book that is self-aware of the fact that it is a book. That is just awesome, because then the book is able to really examine different components of stories and what makes them resonate so powerfully for humans. Connolly constantly inserts what I consider to be his thoughts and opinions on the power of stories.

Stories wanted to be read, David’s mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life.

David’s adventures through the sunken garden into the fairy-tale world show that not only do stories influence us, but we have the potential to influence them. Time and again David either breaks the mold himself or helps others do something differently than expected. In this way, Connolly demonstrates the idea that not only do stories have the power to shape us, but we who experience stories through reading and our own imaginations also have the power to shape them.

I did not feel like I connected with any of the characters very well, not even David. This is always problematic for me as a reader, but in this case I think the story is about much more than David’s journey and growth (though fortunately he does undergo quite a bit of personal growth). Connolly instead poses greater questions and examines themes, which is more in line with what most fairy tales do anyway.

There are parts where the story lags a bit and I’m not sure if this is a book I’ll ever feel the need to reread, but I am glad I took the opportunity to read it. For those interested in seeing new and darker portrayals of fairy tales, I would recommend checking out this book.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. Great review! You said it so much better than I did. I almost feel like going back and adding more to my review because i was so new at reviewing when I read this book. :(

    Awwww. thanks for mentioning me! I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I congratulate you on making it through the whole review without mentioning that hunter woman. i don't think i mentioned her either. she freaked me out and was insane. i wonder what fairy tale that came from? plus, the crooked man gave me nightmares. I don't remember if i connected with any of the characters. i definitely feared for them when they were in peril and i loved the woodsman.

    1. Aww thank you, Courtney! For the record, I enjoyed your review as well! haha oh yeah. I didn't mention those parts of the story that weren't directly related to fairy tales I knew. But she wins for most disturbing part. And yes. The Crooked Man is so freaking creepy.

  2. I love your point that this is a book that is self aware that it is a book. I love that too!

    This looks interesting and the cover is gorgeous! I'm going to have to remember it for when I'm in the mood for something darker!

    -Mary @ My Sisters Bookshelf

    1. Awesome! It is a really cool aspect of books. Yes, definitely keep this book in mind! Also for when you want to read something slightly more mature than normal YA fare. Thanks for commenting, Mary!


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