Deconstructed fairy tales are easy to find these days; from Shrek to Wicked, everybody is mining copyright-free bedtime stories for all the twists they're worth. John Connolly, the Irish author best known for his punchy thrillers, has tapped into a dark vein with his new novel The Book of Lost Things—half-human wolves, screeching harpies, and bloody axe blades are far more prominent than fairy godmothers and sassy princesses. His Jungian take on the old tales illuminates the psychological drama of a boy's coming of age with nightmare imagery that hides a fractured heart of gold.
Twelve-year-old David, having lost his mother to illness and his London home to the Blitz, relocates with his remarried father to his stepmother's house in the country. Egged on by the talking books on his bedroom shelves, and frightened by a crooked man who invades his dreams and menaces the stepbrother he resents, he claws his way through a hollow tree one night in the wake of a German aircraft crash and finds another world, even more dangerous than the warring one he left behind. Facing an army of wolves led by Loups (the products of wolf-human matings), and guided by the tales of an avenging woodsman and a lovelorn knight, David travels to the king's castle, where he hopes a magic tome, the Book Of Lost Things, will help him find his way home.
Connelly emphasizes the high stakes with plain, frightening prose. His protagonist behaves badly, upset by the transfer of his father's affections to a new woman and by the baby who pushes him out of the spotlight. And he pays for his mistakes even as he finds the courage to follow the mirage of his mother's voice crying from beyond the grave. Except for an ill-considered interlude at the home of the Seven Dwarves (who spout communist slogans in the shadow of a monstrously fat Snow White), The Book Of Lost Things is single-mindedly harrowing and rarely playful. David must puzzle out this world of smashed-up stories with the help of his own love of books and his wavering sense of justice and responsibility.
Connolly's compulsive page-turner is almost irresistibly cinematic, but in these Happily N'Ever After times, it's hard to imagine a film doing justice to its grim, bloody tone. David's journey is serious business, rewarded in the end by an epilogue of stark beauty. Waiting on the other side of the fire and massacred beasts is a catharsis for everyone who has lost irredeemably and resolved to live in the emptiness nevertheless.