The loss of a beloved parent. A second marriage. A new baby brother. All these are momentous and traumatic events in the life of a twelve year old boy, particularly one as creative and imaginative as David. In addition to these tumultuous personal events, there is the great threatening shadow of the Second World War darkening the horizon – all this churns into the fantastical melting pot that is author John Connolly’s inventive mind, producing a memorable and touching novel.
They tell you to never judge a book by its cover, but I admit, I first picked up this book because I liked the cover. It’s as simple as that. And boy, was I glad I did. The novel begins by introducing us to David and his stressful sad life. His mother is dying slowly, and the only way he can cope is by sinking into a self-induced OCD which makes him feel a fake sense of comfort and protection. After his mother dies, David realises the futility of the shield he has built around himself, but is then catapulted into having to confront another reality, since as the relationship with his remaining parent deteriorates, his father starts to date, and then marries a woman David resents. A woman who, he knows, can never take his mother’s place.
Up to now, we are aware of the looming shadow of World War 2. However, since the narrator is a twelve year old boy who is more caught up in his personal struggles and problems rather than international politics, it is understandable that the importance given to it is only peripheral. This however, is taken care of in such an elegantly paced and enchanting manner, as to draw us still further into the narrative. David and his father move into Rose’s house, which is big, old, and beautiful. Rose, the new wife, tries to befriend David, but he becomes more and more introverted, preferring instead to shut himself up into his new room, which is full of interesting books. The books, like the room, had belonged to Rose’s uncle, who had disappeared mysteriously when he was a young boy himself.
While trying to escape his difficult situation at home, David becomes more and more obsessed with trying to find out what had happened to that little boy, immersing himself in his books and into a rich and yet disturbing, inner fantasy world. Then disaster strikes. Rose is pregnant, and later on has another son. Needless to be said, at this point David starts to feel not only the loss of his mother, and the estrangement from his father, but also an all-pervading jealousy of his baby brother. He feels that his relationship with his father has deteriorated so much, that no one cares about him anymore, having instead a brand new boy to dote on.
It is then that David makes an enormous discovery, which literally propels him into a new world. It could be said that the strange mysterious places David travels to, and the people and creatures he encounters, are ones derived straight out of books and fables. Twisted fairytales, haunting tales, and warped beings out of the stuff of dreams and nightmares. Is David imagining it, or is it really happening? Is it the impact of the Second World War and an exploded bomb, or an actual journey of life and death? People change, children grow up, and parallel realities mirror each other. It is up to the reader to interpret what he experiences and to find the thin line between fantasy and reality.
I have given too many spoilers already, though not as many as one might think. Suffice it to say that John Connelly, usually known for his detective stories, has charmed a market of entirely new readers with this novel. A book which one might believe was aimed at young adults, but whose insight and deep meanings have the power to delight and inspire everyone.
Lovers of The Neverending Story, The Labyrinth and Legend will love this one. It is definitely a must read!