Hazel McHaffie

Philip Pullman

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Hmm. This is most definitely not a book I would have loved in my youth. But then, I was an unsophisticated country girl, born during WW2, with an over-active imagination that got me into a whole lot of trouble, and back then I knew nothing of the Holocaust which forms the foundation of the tale.

The book hovers somewhere between YA and adult fiction, fantasy and fiction, shape-shifting ghosts and boy-swallowing bogs, past and present, coerlfolc and syndrigasts, time travel and murder, which might just explain the mixed reviews. Difficult to pigeon-hole. Shades of JK Rowling meets Stephen King meets Philip Pullman.

But it was the story’s origins that fascinated me most. The author, Ransom Riggs, started collecting vintage snapshots from flea markets, and antique shops, and fellow-collectors, as a casual hobby, but became increasingly mesmerised by the ones of strange-looking children. There was no way of knowing the true stories behind these pictures, so he made up his own, and it’s a selection (50) of these actual photographs that illustrate the book and give it an air of authenticity and intrigue. Having attended film school prior to writing Miss Peregrine, Riggs was already inclined to think in pictures, and a certain cinematic quality pervades the book. (It was actually made into a film in 2016.)

Vintage photos in Miss Peregrine

The teenage narrator, Jacob, only son of extremely wealthy parents, (the kind that gets a car for his 16th birthday), from a very privileged background, is destined to move into the family drugs business – a ‘corporate cage’. He has grown up listening to his grandfather’s fantastical tales of a colourful past, and magical powers, and monsters and oddities. Indeed, Grandpa Portman keeps a collection of old photos in an ancient cigar box to illustrate his accounts, and these add to Jacob’s pervasive sense of hovering between two worlds. As a child, he’s unaware that these stories have foundation in the dark experiences of persecution of the Polish Jews in WW2 during the 1940s, and escape to a remote island. Or that Grandpa Portman faced double genocide – for being a Jew, and a peculiar, and has carried the weight of those experiences for the rest of his life, burdened by the compulsion to do his bit to fight against both the Nazi and ‘the monsters’.

As dementia sets in, these stories become completely and oppressively real to the old man, even as Jacob’s credulity wanes. But when he’s at the point of death at the hands of an unseen attacker, Grandpa Portman speaks clearly and lucidly, extracting a promise from Jacob that he’ll ‘go to the island’ where he’ll be safe.  He’s to ‘Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third,1940.’

Appalled to be witness to his grandfather’s violent and inexplicable death, Jacob gives his word he will do so. But immediately ‘the strangest feeling came over me. I let go of my grandfather’s body and stood up, every nerve tingling with an instinct I didn’t know I had. There was something in the woods, all right – I could feel it.’ Something from his childhood nightmares, that ‘stared back with eyes that swam in dark liquid, furrowed trenches of carbon-black flesh loose on its hunched frame, its mouth hinged open grotesquely so that a mass of long eel-like tongues could wriggle out.’ It’s an image that tips Jacob over the edge into a paranoid delusional state/acute stress reaction, wracked with guilt that he hadn’t believed his grandfather’s fears.

Recovering from his mental breakdown he’s given an old book with an inscription from his grandfather to Jacob, and inside a photo and letter than confirm he needs to go to the Welsh Island Grandpa talked about to seek the children’s home to which he allegedly escaped. His psychologist recommends Jacob does go, on the basis that a visit could serve to demystify the place that’s been so mythologised by his grandfather. To combat fantasy with reality.

But once there, Jacob unravels a picture of a different dimension. He does Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but it’s been wrecked by a single bomb, and is now a crumbled ruin, overgrown and disused. Much more than that, he enters a world that defies logic and confirms so much of what Grandpa Portman told him. ‘This was the enchanted island; these were the magical children’ he’d heard about and seen in the photographs. Far from being a ‘paranoiac gun nut or a secret philanderer’ as he’d suspected, his grandfather had straddled two worlds; he was some kind of hero fighting a war few could or would understand, a wandering knight risking his life for others.

Now I’ve read it, my sense is that it’s those amazing vintage photographs that give this book it’s strongest appeal. These were real children. Riggs has given them a pedigree. At some level we have to believe in their reality, but at what point precisely do we stop believing their peculiarity?

Oh, and I love the decoration at the foot of every page. Seems to captures the love and care that went into its production.

 

 

 

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Quotable quotes from the writing journals

When the news is dominated by politics, and right royal revelations, we could probably all do with something to make us smile, so I thought I’d brighten your day with assorted wise or amusing quotes.  It’s a long time since I shared entertaining snippets from the literary journals, but, as 2019 draws to its end, it’s probably timely to give you a resume of my favourites, all taken from the Society of Authors’ official magazine: The Author, throughout 2018/19. Names in brackets are the people who submitted these gems.

A definition of stories
‘…  wonderful made-up people whose tangled stories are tattooed on woodpulp’   (Richard Smyth)

Wry humour
A Wilde Wit competition asked for original quotes that sound like something Oscar Wilde might have said. The winner came up with the two top entries:
‘I’m frequently misquoted – often accurately.’
‘An insult from the right person can be as agreeable as any compliment.’   (Andrew Taylor)

Dubious advantage
Ian McEwan‘s youngest son was obliged to read his father’s 1997 novel, Enduring Love, for his A-level course. As part of his studies he had to submit an essay on the book. The author gave him a little private tutorial on it and told him the main points to consider. Unfortunately his English teacher disagreed fundamentally and the lad got nothing more than a C! Just goes to show how subjective reading is, huh?   (Andrew Taylor)

Reporting on research into older people writing
‘… to forget self in a worthwhile project is like a tonic. Being completely immersed in what you are doing, having the mind fully engaged, having a purpose in life, waking up with something to look forward to, and knowing you are still doing something useful to, and valued by, society – these things contribute massively to a happy, healthy and fulfilled old age.’  (Robin Lloyd-Jones)

Occupational hazards
There’s currently a move to encourage authors to abandon their too comfortable writing chair, but did you know the idea has an august pedigree?
Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov and Soren Kierekegaard all worked standing up.   (Alice Jolly)

Unsung wives
Leo Tolstoy‘s wife Sonya made eight fair copies of different versions of War and Peace, bore 13 children, and even worked on the manuscript in bed while recovering from puerperal fever, the childbirth infection that killed many women.  Yet, how many folk laud her efforts? (Karen Christensen)

The place of books in our lives
‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.’   (Philip Pullman)

Reader appeal
Waterstones in Swansea tweeted a message in 2018 that went viral:
‘Doors closed 15 minutes ago. As we do every evening, we’ve turned all the books upside down so the words don’t fall out overnight. It may seem like a silly waste of time, but ask yourself this: when did you last see piles of words on a Waterstones’ carpet? That’s right – NEVER.’   (Andrew Taylor)

It’s a joy to read a publication written by people who really know how to write!

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