I was handed a copy of Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and I’ve been mulling it over since I finished. It’s beautiful, incorporating vintage examples of trick photography, telling the story of a sixteen-year-old boy named Jacob, trying to recover from the violent loss of his grandfather but unable to get anyone to believe what he knows really happened.
The book has a lot of great set-up rendered in clever, light prose. Jacob’s life in Florida is well-drawn, and we’re introduced to the mystery of the grandfather, which spurs Jacob to go with his father to an island in Wales where his grandfather spent time during World War II. Jacob was raised on fantastical stories about children at a safe-house there.
Only we lose most of what was set up once they go. Jacob barely ever thinks about his life in Florida for the rest of his book, and while we’re shown an isolated island community with intriguing characters, they go nowhere. Instead, Riggs focuses the star attractions, the “peculiar children” of the title: an orphanage of abandoned children with unusual biologies and talents, and a science-fiction element that keeps them young enough to be interesting to Jacob.
At this point, the story shifts from the mystery to more of an adventure, with Jacob working to help the children fend off a threat. The problem is, we never really get to know the children in depth—we know about their strange situations, which leads to some beautiful imagery (a girl unaffected by gravity, a boy with a stomach full of bees), but we don’t really delve into who they are.
Even Jacob becomes flat, the narrative voice scaling back. His father, whose own grief over the loss of Jacob’s grandfather, disappears after a while, and we only get a few scenes that hint at their shared mourning. Instead we get monsters and a romantic subplot.
Riggs’s prose is quite beautiful, and the subject matter’s interesting, even with its influences on its sleeve, the X-Men written into the book’s DNA. But it reads like it was pruned back too much, and doesn’t end so much as stop; it feels like there will inevitably be a sequel but the novel itself doesn’t feel like its own complete piece, able to stand up on its own.
The relationship that exists between the prose and the artwork is also frustrating, the photographs introduced into the prose in a overly mannered fashion when I wanted them illustrating something without being referred to.
Ultimately Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children fell down for me, only hinting at depth, introducing things and then forgetting about them—characters and settings ignored the sake of its conceit, a conceit that didn’t quite manage to capture my imagination the way it hoped.
(Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was originally published by Quirk Books in 2011)