Deep within the heart of every avid reader is a longing for adventure. When we read, we indulge in the adventures the author takes us on. Adventures that are crafted through the narrative of an exhilarating storyline and made alive by our own imaginations. When it comes to Ransom Riggs’ book titled Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the art of exploring and adventuring is consistently dramatic and thrilling.
The story revolves around a 16-year-old boy named Jacob Portman, whose curiosity and medically-diagnosed “acute stress reaction” takes him on a journey to a mysterious, remote island just off the coast of Wales after Grandpa Portman’s death.
He follows clues that take him to an abandoned orphanage, known as Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. The crumbling ruins seem empty and desolate, but the moment he steps into it, he confronts an underground world of peculiarity that is still inhabited by the very same children he believes his grandfather grew up with.
He learns that this world is actually a repeated day, a time loop that is controlled to stay unchanged. Over and over again, it's only ever the 3rd of September, 1940. In the mystery of unanswered questions of the past, Jacob is introduced to the best and worst of a supernatural world that was previously limited to his childhood imagination.
Perhaps he's not truly having psychotic episodes, as Dr Golan and his parents had led him to believe...
Classified as a young adult fantasy book, Riggs holds nothing back when exploring themes of violence, tragedy, incest and alcoholism. Influenced by books such as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Riggs’s debut novel prides its major theme along similar lines as these books; exposing a raw, brutal and intriguing discovery of a secret world.
Throughout the novel, the storyline contains dark tones that are both disconcerting and fascinating as Riggs relentlessly pursues adventure through vivid imagery. The kind of adventure that Riggs takes his readers on begins with the emotive language, while the narrative of the setting instantly puts readers at the scene, right in the middle of the action, starting with the remains of Miss Peregrine’s Home:
What stood before me now was no refuge from monsters but a monster itself, staring down from the perch on the hill with vacant hunger. Trees burst forth from broken windows and skins of scabrous vine gnawed at the walls like antibodies attacking a virus – as if nature itself had waged a war against it – but the house seemed unkillable, resolutely upright despite the wrongness of its angles and the jagged teeth of sky visible through sections of collapsed roof (Riggs 2013, p. 74).
Understandably, as a film school graduate, Riggs overtly applies his knowledge of visualisation to language throughout the novel. The details of places, people and monsters of all kinds are explicit and brings together the storyline and readers' experience. It works well, but also becomes unforgivingly wordy at times. No less is the descriptive clarity of the characters Jacob encounters:
My nightmare. It stopped there, hairless and naked, mottled gray-black skin hanging off its frame in loose folds, its eyes collared in dripping putrefaction, legs bowed and feet clubbed and hands gnarled into useless claws - every part looking withered and wasted like the body of an impossibly old man - save one. Its outsized jaws were its main feature, a bulging enclosure of teeth as tall and sharp as little steak knives that the flesh of its mouth was hopeless to contain, so that its lips were perpetually drawn back in a deranged smile" (Riggs 2013, p. 293).
More than that, Riggs includes haunting vintage photographs along the pages of the novel that illustrate the nature and personalities of the characters in the novel to an even deeper extent. Some of which are incredibly hard to take a second look at due to their frightening sense of strangeness. Riggs, a devoted photograph-collector mentioned in an interview (published at the end of the ebook version) that these were just a few of the hundred thousand photographs that he decided to work with when writing the novel. It began as a hobby but it eventually birthed the story of which Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is centred on.
It was just a casual hobby, nothing serious, but I noticed that among the photos I found, the strangest and most intriguing ones were always of children. I began to wonder who some of these strange-looking children had been – what their stories were – but the photos were old and anonymous and there was no way to know. So I thought: If I can’t know their real stories, I’ll make them up" (Riggs 2013, p. 362).
The story would feel incomplete without these strange photographs. This visual dimension adds a very specific understanding to the development of characters and the way they are perceived. Without warning, the turn of the page brought me to these photographs and each time, it was an incredibly unpleasant shock. The strangeness of these photographs never seemed to wear off. Separate from the story however, these photographs are standalone artworks.
Another interesting dimension to Riggs’s novel is the way he marries reality and fantasy. A big part of what makes up the foundation of the storyline is the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American poet who lived during the 1800s. This is particularly evident during Jacob’s 16th birthday, when he receives 'The Selected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson' as a present from his deceased grandfather. Emerson's works are simplified in order to gain understanding of a supernatural world that is personally interpreted by Riggs:
Emerson often speaks about the possibility of fantastic things that exist just out of view, and many of his most famous quotes seem to refer directly to the peculiar children. “The power which resides in him is new in nature,” he writes in Self Reliance (1841), "and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried” (Riggs 2013, p. 366).
While these elements work in favour of Riggs' novel, what is troubling is the part of the plot that explores a love interest portrayed between Jacob and a peculiar child. It becomes a notion of incest and is arguably unnecessary. The idea of it didn't seem to be a well-suited pair of a peculiar characters and a controversial topic of discussion. This could have been cut without affecting the other favourable elements of the novel.
All in all, this book is for anyone who is willing to embark on an unpredictable reading adventure. It will feel like stepping through a secret door, knowing that there might be danger on the other side, but wanting to do it anyway out of great curiosity and enthusiasm for the anticipated. It will bring you on an journey that persuades you, to no end, to find out is going to happen next. While I do recommend giving this book a read, it should be a warning that the photographs do not sympathise with those who are easily frightened visually. Through the eyes of young Jacob Portman, you will experience one of the most exciting, yet also alarming childhoods that anyone has ever lived and perhaps, learn some lessons along the way:
I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was" (Riggs 2013, p. 356).