It isn’t that difficult to understand the appeal of old photos. They turn the past into graspable moments, and even the most mundane shots have mystery: They’re full of people long dead, and places long changed. But no matter how often that appeal is described, it never really fades. The found vintage pictures Ransom Riggs uses to illustrate his debut novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, are melancholic, amusing, and eerie by turns. A few of them are even beautiful. But Riggs’ prose, while serviceable, never fully lives up to those images. There are some clever ideas here, and a decent mythology, and some fun monsters. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that everything is in service of yet another iteration of the “coming-of-age Chosen One” narrative, and not a particularly well-constructed one at that.
This would be true with or without the photos, but they make it worse; while they nominally serve in the same way hand-drawn illustrations might, Riggs’ decision to reference them directly as actual objects within the world of the novel gives them greater importance, forcing readers to acknowledge the gap between the images and the pedestrian story surrounding them. On its own, Miss Peregrine’s Home would be a serviceable horror-fantasy, one with the top-heavy structure and wish-fulfillment indicative of a first book, but with just enough charm to make it worth a look to fans of the genre. But those photos, which initially set the novel apart from the seemingly hundreds of young-adult books published along these lines every year, eventually start to weigh it down.
In Miss Peregrine’s, a teenager decides to investigate the stories his grandfather told him about an island off the coast of Wales. He finds more than he bargained for, of course, and there are adventures, involving a group of kids with remarkable abilities which are almost, but not quite, entirely similar to mutants from X-Men comics. For a story constructed to make use of a collection of vintage snapshots, it’s impressively cohesive, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with yet another recounting of the hero’s journey from callow youth to manhood. But the book never lives up to its own aesthetic, and the story refuses to get past surface level on the occasional odd idea or intriguing concept. Whatever its faults, Miss Peregrine’s only true sin is that, presentation aside, it isn’t really that peculiar.