Just before the start of the Second World War, a twelve year old boy, David, watches his mother die of a terminal illness. While she is still well enough, they read books of stories, myths and legends together, but when she dies, David is left with the books and stories they loved together which hold bitter sweet memories of his mother. Within a year, his father has remarried and his step-mother is pregnant with his half-brother, and the family move house to his step-mothers family home in the country, nearer to his fathers secret work for the Government in the war effort.
Grieving for his mother, David is unable to love or even accept being thrust into the new family his father is creating. In his attic room, once belonging to a long lost relation of his step-mother, he finds the long forgotten books of a boy who disappeared mysteriously many years ago. The books start to whisper to him, and the Crooked Man starts to move into David’s consciousness, while David is drawn to the strange and violent world beyond the sunken garden.
In order to get back to his own world, David must face the quest of a lifetime and come face to face with some of the myths and legends in the stories his mother has left him with.
Every time I visited my book shop, this book would jump out at me from the “3 for 2” table, or in the “Staff recommends” book section, but it wasn’t until my book group leader chose it, that I actually got round to reading it. As I already read quite a lot of children’s books, I wasn’t put off by the fantastical, fairy tale elements of the plot, and had high hopes for an engaging story that would keep me occupied for a few hours on a cold Sunday in January. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed. I’m not sure how long the author had been planning and writing this book, but I found that as I got further into the book, I felt that I’d read or seen it all before, and all slightly better. I was reminded a lot of the film “Pan’s Labyrinth” from a couple of years ago, with a very similar story, except it’s a young Spanish girl with a step-father who is a sadistic captain in the Army fighting a small band of anti-fascist rebels in the Spanish countryside, who escapes into a world of fables to forget reality.
As a huge fan of Jasper Fforde, I’m happy with the use of our well known nursery rhymes and fairy tales being used to tell a new story, but in this book I’m not sure that it really worked. There was a lot of inspiration drawn from the old tales and reworked into the plot, and it was essential to the narrative to keep David’s journey moving forward, but it all felt too familiar and derivative of other books I’ve read or films I’ve seen before, and it just wasn’t original. The author is obviously compelled by fairy tales and myths, as at the back of my copy of the book was a 150 pages of supplementary notes about the genuine origins of some of the stories he refers to in the book, but I’m afraid I just couldn’t be bothered to read it.
In the author interview at the end of the book, he does allude to the fact that he has delved deep into his subconscious and I wonder if it was written as a kind of therapy to help him deal with and understand his own experiences. We see glimpses of a boy suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and are unsure whether the entire story is one of the inner thoughts of a grief stricken young boy with mental health problems, or whether the author intended us to believe this supposed to be a genuine fantastical adventure.
I think this probably comes across as me saying this is a bad book, but it isn’t. It was enjoyable, it was well written, it was entertaining, and if you haven’t had the same exposure to the other things I’ve mentioned, then you may find it original and fascinating. If it’s not the type of book you would normally read, then maybe you’ll find it interesting and unusual, and I would recommend you try it.