The advantage to being in a book club with a group of friends that have widely eclectic reading tastes is that you find yourself exposed to books that you probably would never have heard of otherwise, to say nothing of actually reading. This is the case with “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” a book that I didn’t know existed until it became my book club’s reading choice for September. I feared it was a children’s book at first blush, and it is, in fact, a young adult novel. A close inspection of the cover told me this would be a suspense story, and a scan of the synopsis told me it would a mystery. So, we have a mysterious suspense story. Or so I thought.
This novel was absolutely nothing like I expected. And I loved every page of it.
We’re introduced to our protagonist, Jake, the son of a wealthy family in Florida who really has no friends to speak of. His uncle is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, and tells Jake stories about his time in a home for peculiar children, where his companions held mysterious and altogether odd abilities, and were chased by monsters. Jake spends his childhood looking at old photos that his uncle shows him, photos that are too strange and mysterious to believe. He grows up knowing, as does his family, that his uncle is senile. Until one afternoon when his uncle makes a frantic phone call that “they” have found him, and Jake goes to see what is wrong, only find his uncle brutally murdered. Then, Jake sees the monster. From there, we’re propelled into a search for a home for peculiar children as Jake realizes that the fantastic stories were true, exploring themes of acceptance and heroism along the way, along with love interests and a good dose of time travel thrown in, as well.
What Riggs does that is ingenious is that he takes authentic photographs, black and white images from collectors that he has painstakingly researched, and compiles them here as central to the narrative. These are the sorts of old photos that we’ve seen, and at which we’ve laughed: a teenage boy lifting a huge stone with one hand, a young girl levitating above the ground, a girl standing over a pool with two girls reflected below her. These are the sorts of photos that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you first see them. They make you question, “that can’t be real, can it? They didn’t have the means to alter photos back then…did they?” Then Riggs builds a story around the photos (which are reproduced strategically throughout the book, and credited in the end, if you’re interested), asking “what if?” What if those images were real, and weren’t altered? What sorts of events…what sorts of people…would make up the story behind that? That story, as Riggs sees it, is the novel. While none of his ideas here are particularly new or groundbreaking, combining them under this premise is one of the most creative exercises I’ve seen in recent memory.
To make the novel more fascinating, Celtic mysticism lies hidden throughout, with veiled references to “thin places,” as well as a Celtic holistic view of Creation that runs as an understated through-line to the time travel plot device that Riggs uses so adeptly. In fact, the portal between realms lies inside of a cairn…and, while this felt a bit like he might have taken the idea from Stephen Lawhead, the fact remains that you can’t get much more Celtic than that.
Riggs has done his research, not only with the photographs, but also with the species of birds that develop into character types (no more on that lest I leave you with spoilers). While his writing is not astounding in its complexity, keep in mind that this is a YA novel, and he’s writing to that demographic. Still, his prose is punctuated with a dry wit that will leave you laughing, and occasional flashes of descriptive brilliance that made me stop to re-read the sentence.
As much as I’ve read critiquing how the plot devices are not overly original, the book still moves the reader through an unpredictable arc, and what I particularly love is that it doesn’t tie up all of the loose ends. In fact, the journey is only truly beginning for these characters by the final chapter, leaving me wondering if another novel might follow. Fans of the superhero genre will appreciate the exploration of duty to others and responsibility that comes with power, and fans of the suspense genre won’t be disappointed with scenes that are outright creepy if you’re reading late at night with only a single light in your apartment.
Whether or not YA generally suits your palate, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is a book that I would recommend to anyone. A delicious read that just leaves you smiling in the end…and perhaps wanting more…it is not a book that pretends to be more than it is. But it does what it sets out to do well, and is a refreshingly original way to construct a novel. Add this book to your shelf…and please let me know what you think.