Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children opens with protagonist Jacob Portman, a teenager whose family owns the hundred and fifteen Smart Aid pharmacy/convenience stores in Florida. Mostly, Jacob spends the days working at Smart Aid, or, more accurately, trying to get himself fired, a goal that he admits is impossible because of the fact that one day, he’ll be in charge of all one hundred and fifteen. Jacob seems to spend a lot of time by himself, and the only two people who seem to mean anything to him are his best friend Ricky (more of a hired gun for bullies at school), and his grandfather Abe. Jacob frequently sits with his grandfather to look at old black-and-white photos, ones that Jacob suspects have been doctored to produce their eerie and supernatural subjects. When Jacob finds his grandfather murdered in the woods, and a strange monster lurking in the shadows, he begins to wonder if there is more to the photographs and more to the history of his grandfather than he could ever have guessed. He takes a trip with his father to Wales, where his grandfather lived in a house on an island during WWII, and soon finds himself trying to separate the real from the imagined, memory from truth.
This book reminded me so much of Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens, but I think I would recommend Marbury over Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, even though this one seems to be reviewed and bought more often. Both elicit the same sense of a male protagonist who retreats to a fantasy world, and is hesitant to make the return home again. Instead, both protagonists seem to find a sense of solace away from home, and attempt to make their new home in that fantasy place, even if it is hardly an ideal or utopian existence. Unlike Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children, Smith works hard at world building: Marbury is tactile, vicious, and descriptive. The fantasy employed is well thought out and consistent. This is not quite as evident in Peculiar Children. The fantasy is introduced late, and seems to wobble back and forth between full, high fantasy, and just skirting along the edges of that fantasy/reality line. I’m not saying that it has to be either – the uncertainly of navigating between fantasy and reality sometimes makes for the most affecting books – but it still seems unbalanced throughout. The gothic feel to the beginning of Peculiar Children, particularly characterized by a sense of the uncanny, is undercut by the sudden foray into fantastical explanation for the sense of the gothic. And the gothic as a genre thrives so much on that line between fantasy and reality, and even if there is something to explain all the fantastical away, that sense of the uncanny still remains. I thought that the novel lost a lot of the magic and mystery and uncertainty that initially had me turning the pages doing the “what next?” thing, once fantasy explained away the mystery. And that doesn’t happen often. Usually fantasy brings in this really interesting examination of the world and this underlying sense that there is more than is readily accessible and available. It keeps you, as a reader, wondering. Riggs’ fantasy answered the questions. It solved the mystery before it even got well underway.
Aside from this, Peculiar Children has a lot going for it. I’m always sold on WWII fantasy, and the way Riggs utilizes this time period to explain his fantasy and world building is pretty incredible. For example, Peculiar Children relies on the idea of a time loop that exists for a single day – September 3, 1940 – where a group of children with exceptional abilities have been living together for decades. At the end of each day the loop resets itself, backing up a full twenty-four hours right as German planes fly over the house and bomb it. The sense of time is well-crafted, and Riggs does let fantasy do its “what if?” thing by suggesting that there are several of these time loops that extend throughout time and history, each of them holding a pocket of exceptional individuals, keeping them safe within a single repeating day. All the while, eerie creatures attempt to break through these time loops that have been constructed for the very purpose of keeping them out. Amidst all of that is Jacob, who navigates between the present day and the September 3, 1940 time loop, uncovering the mystery of who his grandfather was and what exactly he was trying to protect himself from all his life.
I think I expected more out of Peculiar Children, especially because of the combination of text and graphics. The collected and found photographs Riggs employs throughout bring his subjects to life, and further blur the line between fiction and reality. The photographs in the book are used to bring life to fictionalized characters; yet, they are also photographs of real people whose image exists next to a fictionalized story. For the photos alone, I would recommend this book, but the story itself seems not to hold up as strongly. Riggs leaves room for a sequel, for an entire series of books, and maybe they will build up out of this initial fantastical structure, and carry it much further than this introductory book allowed for.