Jacob is 16, living in Florida and suffering from incurable dreaminess. One bright spot in his life is Grandpa Portman, a man with a dark past and an odd collection of old photos. When Grandpa Portman is tragically killed, the police say a pack of feral dogs killed him. Jacob, though, saw the beast that did the deed. It was a monster just like the one Grandpa Portman had claimed was chasing him – the very story Jacob had grown to disbelieve.
Unable to move on from Grandpa Portman’s death, Jacob follows clues from his Grandpa’s old photos and convinces his father to go on a search for answers. The clues take them to a remote, rain-soaked Welsh island, which housed orphans such as Grandpa Portman during the Second World War. With a bit of detective work, Jacob finds the ruins of the orphanage, where Alma LeFay Peregrine and her group of peculiar children used to live. The secrets that lie inside those ruins send Jacob on a quest to save all those he loves.
First-time novelist, filmmaker and blogger Ransom Riggs has written a book about a boy who discovers that he is extraordinary. Does that sound somewhat ordinary? It is ground well covered by Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket’s charges, to name a few. As this book shows, some stories don’t need to tread new ground. It’s how the story is told that makes for an extraordinary adventure.
What sets Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children apart is Riggs’s use of “found” photographs as a spark of inspiration for the narrative. “Found” describes art created from common objects that are not normally considered art. While Marcel Duchamp is attributed with coining the term (originally “found object” or objet trouvé), many artists use the idea to create works – Tracy Emin’s My Bed, for example – while other artists repurpose work to create something new, like Pasha Malla’s upcoming poetry collection, Why We Fight, which uses found text.
The peculiar photos in this novel were culled from the archives of collectors who have rummaged through bins of snapshots at flea markets, antiques malls and yard sales. Riggs found a few transcendent photos that spoke to him of a story.
The photographs are tucked into the pages as illustrations. While you read, it feels like Riggs has allowed the photos to steer the narrative. This makes the novel seem like an adventure. While it sounds odd to admire an author of a fantasy book for exploring, I refer more to the process of a writer opening himself up to things beyond his control. It is a risk to allow an object to pull the story off a plotted path. And it is precisely this risk that rewards the reader.
There are moments when a photo provides the perfect piece of the puzzle. For instance, an old picture of Jacob’s Dad looking rejected in a bunny suit serves as a trigger for the discovery of his deeper fears. The delivery of the photo is perfectly timed. Or take the shot that shows two people walking through a tunnel into a light, presented in the story as a kind of wrinkle in time, in the London Underground. This photo takes a somewhat familiar setting and twists your interpretation of what you are looking at. It becomes a springboard for the imagination.
There are moments where the plot feels pulled to fit the photographs. As you read, a question comes to mind: Was the book planned around the photos, or did the photos spur on the plot? Knowing the answer might take away some of the fun.
The author’s ability to use the photos to play with the reader’s imagination, while still holding the tension of the plot, is extraordinary. This kind of device can feel like a self-conscious reminder of the authorial hand, but this is not the case in Miss Peregrine’s Home. In Riggs’s hands, the use of found art is an elegant tool that reinforces the message of the book. Everything has the potential to be extraordinary, whether an old photograph, a book or a life. If you find it ordinary, you simply need to take a closer look.
Claire Cameron, author of The Line Painter, thinks that all ideas are found, as her online notebook shows: http://www.claire-cameron.com/site/.