The Hitchcock-style plot “MacGuffin” is the search for a scrapbook called “The Book of Lost Things” owned by the king of a magical land. But late in the day we are told that the book we are holding is also part of the plot, purportedly authored not by thriller writer John Connolly but by the grown-up version of David, the 12-year-old who seems to be the hero of the third-person narrative.
It’s a tricksy approach, but then again this is a book with a trickster for a villain: the Crooked Man, who is also Rumplestiltskin of the fairy tale. The novel plays any number of games with stories famous and forgotten.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, David is grieving over the death of his mother and resentful that his father – a code-breaker – has remarried Rose, a woman he casts as a wicked stepmother, and that they have had a baby.
In a huge house passed down in Rose’s family, bookish David takes a room once lived in by a relative who mysteriously disappeared along with his little sister. After a family scene and during an air raid, David himself disappears – into a land where all the myths, fairy tales and romances come from.
Here, he sets out to see the King, who might be able to show him the way back, and is wooed by the Crooked Man, who offers double-sided deals.
Connolly evokes well-known stories and well-known versions, having Pratchett-like fun with Disney’s Snow White and MGM’s Wizard of Oz, and embedding Angela Carter-style horrific rewrites of Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty.
In his thrillers, he has tapped into the material he finds behind all great fairy tales – most often, sexual and violent predators who stalk children. Here, they are transformed into armies of werewolves, a 1950s-style giant insect, or the villain whose aim is not killing the hero but convincing him to strike an evil bargain.
This is an adult novel steeped in children’s literature that cannily makes its 1940s junior protagonist credibly ignorant of aspects which the grown-up reader, or any modern kid, will catch at once.
Written in the clear, evocative manner of the best British fairy tales from JM Barrie to CS Lewis, The Book of Lost Things is an engaging, magical, thoughtful read.